When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

Great American Holiday: Super Bowl Sunday

America's new national holiday, a celebration of consumerism

Over the past few decades, America has enshrined a new national holiday around a cluster of rituals that bizarrely bind the nation together. On Super Bowl Sunday in late January, millions of Americans gather in living rooms and family rooms, at bars and at local hangouts. They mingle, laugh and imbibe while a TV in their midst hums out the details of a football game, bifurcated by an entertainment extravaganza at half time, and punctuated by snappy commercials.

Alcohol is consumed in large amounts, often in the form of beer, while food, usually of an unhealthy variety, is also wolfed down. In the meantime, conviviality reaches a fever pitch, especially for those not overly concerned with the game itself.

In the “Great Game,” two gangs of Titans hit the field and smash into each other with violent verve. Fouls are called, fumbles made and passes intercepted. We love to watch the most bone crunching plays replayed over and over, especially those in which players are actually injured. While the game views its value in reaching this national championship, those eating and drinking are really reveling in a different form of American dream: a world drifting in party oblivion and pleasurable calories, floating on the tide of tendon-tearing violence dished out by well-muscled athletes and cheered on by sexy beauties flaunting their stuff for big bucks.

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What the partiers watch from the corner of their eyes during these events takes place in three parts, now a ritualized sequence. Throughout the game, buff guys in massive shoulder pads play in the name of large paychecks, wearing thick helmets to protect their brain from too much injury, and sticky gloves that make catching a football far easier than in the past. During half time, well-known entertainers leap about the stage with the aid of dazzling light shows and the pop and sizzle of sensational special effects. Yet it is the commercials that uncannily elicit much attention and often live on the longest. In fact, these commercials may capture most successfully the heart and soul of the holiday itself.

The commercials create quite a buzz in their own right and outlive in the American psyche the outcome of the Great Game, generating controversy and even disapproval during ensuing weeks. In a recent article in the Huffington Post, two authors decry the sexism and objectification of women so inherent in the commercials. The authors wonder how all this impacts kids watching the game and conclude not well. But the replies that then bombard this article online seem to say, “Stop all your moralistic whining, Article Authors, and enjoy the fun. My kid watched it and barely noticed the sexist stuff.”

In a YouTube offering, a group called NotBuyingIt aired five commercials that were especially troubling and urged us all to boycott the companies in question. One ad in particular for GoDaddy fired the ire of many. In this commercial, a geeky looking guy, representing Smart, and a beautiful young woman, representing Sexy, unite their talents in the form of a painfully awkward and comically explicit kiss.

What are we to make, then, of the Super Bowl extravaganza? We see the consumerism of the society on full display, in the form of stirring and humorous commercials at their finest. We also see American voyeurism here at its most extreme as we the audience admire the violence of the game and the hot derrieres of Beyoncé and her band of leggy, clone backups performing their routines with triumphant abandon.

But also we see the American farmer glorified by a voice-over of the legendary Paul Harvey pointing toward an obviously patriotic act: buy a Ram truck. We see the age-old theme of a boy and his horse brought home rather poignantly. After the boy—actually young man—sells his Clydesdale horse to the Budweiser people, he sees at a distance his Clydesdale prancing down a city street in full Bud regalia. After the event, the boy leaps into his truck a bit crestfallen. But, lo, what does he see sauntering toward him? Why, his horse, who trots up to him for a caress. The conclusion: buy a Bud for a heartwarming ending.

We see a humorous nod to old age played out in a commercial as well. Some elderly folk escape from their nursing home one night and go out on a spree. How does this guilty pleasure culminate? At a Taco Bell, naturally, wolfing down forbidden foodstuffs even as the police cruise by and offer a knowing wink. After all, what could be more luxurious for anyone than a good and fattening Taco Bell delight?

So the American dream lives on every Super Bowl Sunday. Powerful men clash and beautiful women flirt. Important American themes are visited—reverence for old age, a desire to blend sexy with smart, a man’s love for his horse, and a glorification of the farmer, all offered up as themes that sell a good product (or if not a good product, at least one with a very clever PR firm to back it up).

And how does this affect kids? I suspect it is not just the viewing of a long and sensuous kiss or even the glimpse of a female breast due to a wardrobe malfunction that should concern us. If we focus merely on the sex and violence, we miss a broader concern—rather the deep and subliminal messages percolating through the entire event involve unbridled consumerism, adulation of money-making, and the use of both sex and violence along with positive emotions to make ever larger pots of money for those cunning and talented enough to thrust their noses into the trough of this cash cow.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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