I love the Super Bowl. Love the game. Love the ads. Love the whole glitzy, over-hyped shebang. Did you catch opera soprano Renee Fleming's gorgeous rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner"? I get teary-eyed even now thinking about it.
However, I no longer enjoy the mercenary hoopla leading up to "The Big Game" (what most New York businesses were forced to term the Seattle-Denver match-up because the NFL prevented them from using "Super Bowl" in their marketing).
"Sacrilege! Stone him! Force him to listen to Nancy Grace!"
Well, you see, I spent the last week attempting to enjoy pre-Super-Bowl festivities in New York. I had naively hoped that with the city's first-ever shot at creatively exploiting our nation's most popular gladiator sport -- especially one pitting two cities with legalized pot -- one would catch a wave of ingenuity on the streets of Manhattan and deep into the hipster hoods of Brooklyn and Queens.
No such Andrew Luck.
Basically, the city's pre-game "celebration" -- if a sea of tourist zombies stumbling around in Seahawks and Broncos regalia can be dubbed a "celebration" -- was funneled into a ten-block fan zone (read: advertising gauntlet) along Broadway from 44th to 34th. My fellow tourons and I crept sheep-like along this "Super Bowl Boulevard" -- more like Tailhook: NFL Edition -- assaulted by marketing messages, one more boorish than the previous, while hounded by un-licensed costumed characters, each more agro than its predecessor. The Hello Kitty woman actually yanked off her costumed head and menacingly glared at me after I handed $5 to a poor man's version of Iron Man as well as $2 to Toy Story's Woody Pride (the previous "Woody" was recently charged with forcible touching and third-degree sexual abuse of two female tourists) and told them to split the proceeds amongst their costumed crew.
Kitty was having none of that!
Yes, there were some token, pedestrian gimmicks thrown into the Super Bowl Boulevard mix -- a 60-foot toboggan slide, a chance to kick a football -- but in the main it was a corner blitz of obvious and unoriginal corporate propaganda from sponsors and media. For the most profitable sports league on the planet -- the NFL rakes in $9 billion a year in profits -- it was another defensive stunt. Hardly the "gift to the city" that many in the league promised.
But then there was this innocuous white tent in the far northeast corner of Bryant Park, with "PepCity" simply emblazoned on the outside. As envisioned and executed by experiential branding concern inVNT, inside PepCity I encountered a dark and oddly disorienting walkway -- designed by Brooklyn-based Snarkitecture -- featuring side stations of caterers dishing out free and imaginative PepsiCo-derived concoctions to huddled masses yearning to be fed.
What the deuce?
I walk farther in and encounter even more concoctions. This was just some big Byzantine "Pepsi pour," right? I searched for the requisite in-your-face branding of PepsiCo products. Save for a small sign that said Tostitos, and a reconception of the swirly-curly neon Pepsi-Cola billboard one can still viddy on the Long Island City side of the East River, there largely was none.
Instead, there were these trippy creations courtesy of New York area chefs David Burke (Townhouse), Marc Forgione (of the eponymous Marc Forgione) and Michael Psilakis (Kefi). In the mood for Mount Dew Bacon Tacos With Sabra Guacamole and Pico de Gallo? I didn't know PepsiCo owned Sabra. How about Gluten-Free Cherry Pepsi BBQ Chicken Wings (with dried cherries, ginger and scallions)? Admit it: that sounds amazing. How about Pepsi-glazed, maple-infused bacon sliders? Or what seemed like Tostitos with Naked-Juice-accented ceviche? Yes, PepsiCo owns Naked Juice too. There was more. Much more. The kind of Iron Chef "more" one shoves little old ladies aside to get at.
Around a corner in the back was a stage filled with dueling rappers. Not, at first blush, very interesting to this white, middle-aged, "Omaha! Omaha!" alt-rocker. But when I step in closer, I realize that this is no ordinary rap battle. One black guy (Yanos), one white guy (Dylan Owen), and a hilarious Latino referee (L Boogs) are spitting impressive ad hominems themed to the competing teams in Super Bowl XLVIII. As evidenced from the applause from the multi-ethnic crowd, the skinny white kid actually got the better of his well-built black rap brethren. Nevertheless, in the spirit of this era's "Everyone Gets a Trophy" mindset, both performers got a ticket to "The Big Game."
After the rap battles ended, I turned around to gape at a set of five video screens on the other side of the makeshift PepCity dome. Created by the Six01 artist collective, the installation was a look inside the lives of five archetypal New Yorkers -- businessman, fashion designer, artist, teenage girl, and building superintendent -- in five apartments inside one building after a fictional blackout. And not one PepsiCo product placement in the entire piece.
Unfortunately, "The Blackout" slightly missed the mark on execution. Shot in a Burbank studio with Hollywood actors, it lacked the edgy, gritty beauty one would naturally find in the Naked City. I would have preferred a more visually and theatrically honest look -- there was too much stretching for overacted affect in each of the seven-minute tableaus -- at the lives of flesh-and-blood Gothamites shot in New York, instead of this oddly choreographed, almost surreal, SoCal fantasy of New York life.
Nevertheless, "The Blackout" was a noble stab at innovative art at a Super Bowl Week glaringly lacking in any. This is New York City: home of the original "Mad Men," inspired Absolut ads, and superlative dance, music, fashion, and visual art. It's also home to a fierce contingent of "Burners," Nonsense event habitués, and outlandish steampunk characters who could have turned Super Bowl Boulevard into an absurdist carnival for the ages. Maybe not a Kurt Cobain Shooting Gallery or John Denver Beer Pong Brought to You by Coors Light, but at least something along the lines of a Fire-Breathing Robot Football Death Match, refereed by biker outlaws, set to an electro-operatic backdrop.
Of course, nothing of that sort remotely appeared anywhere in New York City's five boroughs.
Still, we will always have PepCity, Ilsa, and its bold gift of lightly branded culture, featuring a conscious absence of heavy-handed marketing anywhere inside inVNT's originally conceived confines. Now that's a tasteful bellwether that maybe the NFL should heed in all matters, including the drawn-out "Big Game" itself.
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