Capitalist Porn - Behind the Fetishization of Super Bowl Commercials

02/06/2012 11:45 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012

Just as the marketing of Christmas begins around Columbus Day, each year the Super Bowl commercial frenzy muscles onto the scene earlier and earlier, and extends beyond the final scrimmage. In fact, a Super Bowl commercial is no longer a mere message, it is a complex and prismatic marketing campaign that, of course, uses social media to create anticipation and start a "conversation" -- as the brand mavens call it -- with consumers.

If "advertising is dead," like many say, then the two weeks before the Super Bowl are the kind of mortality that American manufacturing would like to experience.

We've reached the point where these commercials have transcended their conventional job -- which is to sell a product. They have largely become the product itself; Super Bowl ads have actually become "brands" -- self-contained economies that require their own marketing and PR strategies.

You can image the meetings, the PowerPoints, the Keurig-fueled debates about how soon before the game to release the commercial, exactly what the long-form version of the spot should be, and how to leverage the compliant media to drive YouTube viewcos and Twitter conversations.

As of a couple of hours before the game, more than 11.5 million people had seen Matthew Broderick in "Matthew's Day Off", the reborn Bueller in Honda's commercial launching the new 2012 CR-V. Which means that the millions who see the spot will be watching an old friend in a new context, and paying no less attention to it -- and perhaps more -- had it not been previewed.

Much of the commentary around the apotheosis of the Super Bowl commercial is driven by the same argument we've been hearing for a while. That our culture is fragmented, our media universe splintered, and we hunger for those moments of rare communal focus. Megan Garber put it nicely on the Atlantic's blog yesterday, noting that the simultaneous viewing experience offers the "warmth of assumed connection that convened attention can confer. I am watching Matthew Broderick as 110,999,999 other people do. There is something epic -- and rare -- about that."

But I think there's something else operating here. Why would TV advertising for the game, a constructed manipulation that's clearly designed to coerce us into buying "stuff we don't need" -- as the conventional meme used to go -- rise to level of honor and exaltation, winning such intense and prolonged attention?

And why would millions of people -- "consumers" or "end users," as marketers call them -- willingly and happily become unpaid workers for billion-dollar corporations by tweeting and Facebooking and participating in polls and surveys about the advertising? The 99% aren't protesting, they are acting as useful idiots -- and no, Lenin didn't invent that phrase -- for the 1%.

There are a number of interlocking reasons for this, and Megan Garber's point that we cherish the rare communal connection, is just one of them. At the salesy center of our national obsession with Super Bowl commercials is that we are all marketers now. After all, we're all desperately concerned with our personal brands, and how we manage them on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

So we enjoy analyzing the black magic of commercials, because we're all part of this meta-branding game. We no longer resent being sold stuff. We're as much the manipulators as the manipulated. We're fascinated by persuasion. Soon, everyone will be working on their Klout score, or some equivalent measure of personal, yet commercial success.

There's yet another reason why we are obsessed with Super Bowl commercials. They're more interesting than the average TV spot, and hence we're more interested -- a communications tautology. It is precisely because viewers are focused on them that advertisers can get away with commercials that require more intense concentration. Super Bowl commercials can unfold more languidly, can use more complex story-telling techniques, can inject jarring elements of non-linearity and can be more subtle and filmic. We're expecting that level of richness.

The rest of the year, when we're emailing and texting and Words-With-Friending, and we're befogged by clashing inputs, we don't have the attention span or patience to watch commercials unfold. It also helps that so many people have seen the commercials before, so they can focus on some of the small details that otherwise be overlooked. There are so many tiny references to the original movie in the Ferris Bueller take-off that MTV has published an entire skeleton key to them.

If you look at the survey data, Americans have lost faith in our institutions of power, from government to business to media. We say corporations have too much money and put their own interests first. We also claim we don't trust advertising or that we make buying decisions based on it. Recognizing that, advertisers are canny enough to recognize their own vulnerabilities. Last year, Hulu's Super Bowl advertising described the company as an "Evil plot to destroy the world." This year, they called themselves an "eviler plot."

So we'll allow ourselves to be pawns in the game, as long as we're aware of what's happening to us, and the companies who are selling to us continue let us judge them. That's a reciprocal deal every one of the Fortune 500 will take, any day. Especially on Super Bowl Sunday.