Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane in a Super Bowl Ad

Super Bowl commercials have long been a leading American cultural indicator. Understandbly, they aim for the mainstream. If you’re shelling out millions per minute, you’d better be pretty sure you’re connecting with a wide swath of consumers.

Many of the commercials are wonderfully comic and inventive. For Super Bowl 44, for example, I couldn’t help but smile at the parody of the long-running television series Lost, which my wife Diane has followed into more labyrinths than Theseus could ever have imagined. Bud Lite offers itself as the elixir that can somehow get the people trapped there for five years off the island. Low-calorie suds as deus ex machina.

Sometimes, however, when you’re aiming at the lowest common denominator, taste goes out the window. A misguided attempt at humor can become downright offensive to certain sensibilities. Such was the case tonight, for me, with an over-the-top, open-coffin pitch for corn chips.

Doritos has been a durable junk food brand for as long as I can remember. But what kind of nihilistic culture shows someone faking his own death so he can max out on cheesy comestibles filling up his coffin?

In the commercial, a man reclines in Epicurean comfort in a coffin stocked with Doritos, listening to his own funeral. The sheer weight of the excess of chips tips the coffin over, revealing him to the assembled mourners. The reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain quipped years ago.

In a culture in which there was a mainstream belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, such a scene would be not just ludicrous, but practically unthinkable.

What would I have aired instead? For me, it would be an ad from HarperCollins for N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

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