The Super Bowl

February 3, 2019 (1687 words) :: The 53rd Super Bowl took place today, in the Mercedez-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, in an exciting display of ads interpersed with a bit of football.
Tags: advertising, mark-fisher

This post is day 34 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Yesterday’s blog post started off by talking about an egg that became an advertisement for watching the Super Bowl on Hulu. Obviously, I couldn’t write that blog post and not watch the Super Bowl on Hulu. Plus, I’m in the US now, and it’s looking increasingly likely that I’m going to live here, so I might as well embrace American customs. So today’s post is about the Super Bowl, that celebration of the most American custom of all: capitalism.

One question that popped into my head while trying to write this blog post: is there a single sports stadium in this entire country that hasn’t sold its naming rights to a corporation?

I ask because the Super Bowl took place in a new stadium in Atlanta, a stadium called (no kidding) the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Not to be confused with the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.) And if I try to list all the American (or even Canadian) sports arenas I know, they all seem to be branded. Gillette Stadium, in Massachussetts. Oracle Park, the baseball stadium home to the San Francisco Giants, which has also been called “Pacific Bell Park” and, until recently, AT&T Park. Bell Centre, in Montreal (Bell is a huge Canadian telecommunications company). Rogers Centre, in Toronto (Rogers being another, slightly less huge, Canadian telecommunications company).

I actually just went through Wikipedia’s list of stadiums, and although I did find some stadiums with non-corporate names, I also discovered some stadiums whose names, like those mentioned above, seem too horrifyingly banal to be real. FedExField. Bank of America Stadium. AT&T Stadium. MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (an insurance company). FirstEnergy Stadium in Ohio (an electricity company). M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

Why is all this corporate sponsorship necessary? Why can’t it just be the Atlanta stadium or the SF baseball park? Why are these huge corporations paying millions of dollars a year simply to have their name associated with a multi-purpose arena that occasionally features spectator sports?

In a k-punk blog post about the 2012 Olympic Games, titled The London Hunger Games, Mark Fisher provides a compelling explanation:

The point of capital’s sponsorship of cultural and sporting events is not only the banal one of accruing brand awareness. Its more important function is to make it seem that capital’s involvement is a precondition for culture as such. The presence of capitalist sigils on advertising for events forces a quasi-behaviouristic association, registered at the level of the nervous system more than of cognition, between capital and cultural. It is a pervasive reinforcement of capitalist realism.

The underlying message is clear. There is no Super Bowl without German luxury car manufacturers, and in fact, there is no sports at all without banks, insurance, and telecommunications companies. This is what capitalism means, after all: a system that supports capital’s relentless drive to expand in every dimension, until every aspect of life of is edged with the grey tinge of corporate monotony. Nothing can be allowed to exist unspoiled for long; capital always moves in.

Even that which is born organically, outside of capital’s branding labs, will land on capital’s radar if it becomes successful enough. Audience enjoyment is far, far too lucrative to remain untouched by capital’s ideological agenda; each unit of enjoyment can be quantified and priced, and there will always be corporations willing to pay for those eyeballs and the chance to associate their brand with positive feelings.

The Super Bowl is perhaps the epicentre of this kind of advertising - not to mention, advertising in general. The CBS Super Bowl show was sponsored by Bubly sparkling water, we are informed by the announcer. The upcoming post-game show is sponsored by Verizon. Even the camera in the sky - the very perspective from which we are able to see the events happening in the game, which literally frames how we see the world - is branded: the Bud Light SkyCam. What does a mediocre beer brand have to do with a “computer-controlled, stabilized, cable-suspended camera system”? It’s unclear.

The spot advertisements are the really exciting part, though. promised to solve our search engine optimisation woes, by helping us attain the first search result in the relevant category. (And what if everyone uses Wix? There can only be one top result.) Mercedes-Benz must have spent a ton of money acquiring the rights to feature various iconic fictional characters: Lassie, (Free) Willy, Looney Tunes. (Like all car ads these days, it was surreal, didn’t say a lot about the car, imagined lifestyle fantasy associations.) Some company I had never heard of called advertised a gadget for keeping your phone visible while you drive (I’m astonished that their margins are high enough that they can afford a Super Bowl spot). Most bizarrely, there was a short clip of Andy Warhol eating a burger from Burger King, which was originally part of a film (Warhol reportedly wanted McDonalds instead, but had to settle for Burger King), but is now a Burger King advertisement - #EatLikeAndy! You almost have to laugh, because otherwise you would cry.

By my count, Bud Light had the most advertisements throughout the Super Bowl. Most of them didn’t even exhort the values of Bud Light as consumable substance as much as they impugned the values of its competitors. Bud Light does not contain corn syrup, we are repeatedly told, from which we are presumably meant to take away that all other beer brands contain corn syrup, and that corn syrup is bad. (The National Corn Growers Association hotly contested the latter point after the show - on Twitter, of all places - while acknowledging that other “light” beer brands do use corn syrup.)

One Bud Light ad took a different approach, showing us a lovely pastoral scene with wind turbines in the background and proudly proclaiming Bud Light’s use of wind power. You see, corporations are taking responsibility! The requisite social change will happen if you just keep drinking your corn syrup-free beverage.

Advertisements that eschewed cliché directives to consume in favour of highlighting the social responsibility of our corporate overlords were in full swing tonight. They were also the most nauseating to watch. Verizon wants us to thank it for allowing California’s first responders to save lives, even though it throttled firefighters’ data speeds during last year’s wildfires. Google praised veterans and claimed to be able to help them find jobs post-discharge (am I being too cynical if I assume that Google itself systematically underpays and mistreats its veterans simply because they can get away with it, probably through their contingent worker system?). Microsoft highlighted the benefits of its gaming consoles for children with special needs.

That’s not to say that these ads, with their sentimental background music and careful cultivation of audience goodwill, are not directing us to consume. They still are, of course. But today’s consumers don’t want to just consume, we want to consume while also feeling good about ourselves and the companies for which we have voted with our wallet. We want to consume ethically, and we like the idea of implicitly supporting firefighters, and veterans, and special needs kids with our purchases.

It’s a huge market, and these companies are more than happy to serve it. So we get more than ASMR-style sales pitches for apparently delicious beer and over-the-top car ads; we also get miniature Lifetime movie about how the corporations that run the world are also making the world a better place. Don’t worry about inequality, stemming from the fact that corporate profits are at a record high while wages have largely flatlined since the 70s; instead, look how happy these kids are! Don’t you want to make kids happy? (Buy Microsoft products.)

In David Foster Wallace’s most famous essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” (on cruise ships), he writes:

An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

(That essay - one of my favourites - was the first thing by David Foster Wallace I’d ever read. I was reminded of it through a beautiful piece by Nathalie Olah that I came across recently, lamenting the arrival of “twee advertising”: Twee Advertising and the Infernal Urban Village.)

There’s something kind of unbearably tragic about the Super Bowl being little more than a bricolage of advertisements. After a certain point, it goes beyond the realm of ridicule (Bud Light SkyCam, ha ha), and all that’s left is a plangent sadness. This is literally our world, you know? The only world we have. The Super Bowl is the most-watched television program within the world’s largest economy; like it or not, it is a defining symbol of our times. Those of us who are repelled by it can mock it or otherwise distance ourselves from it, but we can’t simply make it wink out of existence, along with all its corporate sponsors. This is the present state of things, and we can’t change that.

But maybe we can change the future, by embarking on a movement to abolish the present state of things

This post is even later than yesterday’s. Oops. I’m going to try and write my blog posts earlier in the day, in the future, just so I stop subjecting myself to a last-minute scramble to come up with a blog post topic at like 10:30pm every night.

Also, in case you were wondering: the egg turned to be a Hulu ad to raise awareness for mental health. Corporate social responsibility in action.

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