Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Super Bowl Commercials I: Is it Okay to Start Buying Stuff Again?

Can the privileged class start enjoying its privileges again already? Here's the first in a three-part series on the Super Bowl's auto commercials (including perhaps THE only two popular ads this year). They tell a divided story.

Audi: Release the Hounds (Or, Meet the New Boss: Same as the Old Boss)

Two bathrobed prisoners in a jail for the wealthy break out, to a soundtrack of their delighted fellow inmates' cheers, and Kenny G. The warden orders "Release the hounds," and as the prisoners reach the gate, they have a choice: climb into a white Mercedes, or a flashy Audi A8. The older of the pair hops into the Benz--"My father had one of these," he says, and is driven immediately back to the jail. The younger accelerates to freedom in the Audi, passing under the George Washington Bridge as a voice-over implores us: "Escape the confines of old luxury." The tagline reads: "Luxury has progressed."

So the ad aims to convince us that old luxury is dead, and that it's acceptable, sexy, desirable, etc. to indulge in new luxuries. This is not a very new idea (just watch the above Philadelphia Story and notice how similar Carey Grant looks to the protagonist of the Audi commercial, and how different Grant's car looks from everyone else's). That is, if there is a victim of the last four years of endemic unemployment and economic collapse, it's certainly not conspicuous consumption itself (that was the rumor circa January 2009)--but rather simply the consumption of old guard luxury brands.

Of course, there's nothing fundamentally different about the latest iteration of luxury at all. To begin with, the prisoners are all in the same jail. Old and new wealth are locked up in the same physical space at the beginning of the ad. Why, precisely, are they there? We are told that these poor souls are "confined" by old luxury. But what does this actually mean? What are the trappings of contemporary wealth? One can't help but conclude that they are serving time for white-collar crimes. If this is so, then at the end, we're rooting for the young Wall Street investor who has come up with a new algorithm/program/options-scheme that goes undetected by regulators. He gets away because he has figured out a way to beat the system.

Audi gets us to root for the return of the same exact financial structures in a new packaging. We cheer for the a new young buck who evades the law and flies down the Hudson. "Where is he headed?" we may wonder. Well, if you look closely, he's driving southbound below the West Side Highway during the early morning hours, ostensibly driving to work at Goldman from suburban Westchester.

That the commercial advocates the revitalization of accepted modes of exploitation goes as well for how it is subtly racialized. All of the prisoners, drivers, and guards are white, except for one. The only non-white character is dressed as a doorman who releases the hounds on the fleeing prisoners. (This is the commercial's real rage-inducing moment for me. REALLY AUDI? A DOORMAN?) A black man releasing hounds on a pair of fleeing white millionaires is a narrative inversion of the most sinister kind. That is, I think it's still rather soon to be joking about slavery jokes in commercials...and it always will be. But at the same time, this inversion points us to another way in which the order of this commercial simply plays reproduces and repackages existing structures of power. The commercial's only racially "marked" character takes orders from the warden. He works for the jail. He is a night-watchman, a security guard -- in other words, a low income laborer who probably takes this job knowing that he will never afford either a Benz or an Audi.

Luxury never progresses in our society--it merely morphs, making new products seem more desirable to newly privileged classes making its privileges seem prettier than the privileged who came before them.

Verdict: NOT buying an A8. (I'm more of a white Benz man myself, anyway. There's something dignified in being honest about being a prick, no?)


  1. Love this analysis. LOVED LOVED what you had to say about Donald.

    I noticed this was "Part I" of your Superbowl Commercial Analysis...
    Maybe this debate is already old hat in the U.S. But what did you think of the Groupon commercials? Could anything make you feel worse about the incredible depth of consumerism you are indulging in as you watch the superbowl?
    What was its underlying message supposed to be? I don't get it.
    The Tibetan restaurant one could have been construed as -- well, by supporting this Tibetan-run restaurant, we are somehow indirectly still helping the cause and supporting learning about the culture, but the Elizabeth Hurley Brazillian wax one wouldn't fit that. - ripping it all off doesn't save trees...
    I know that Groupon has been under attack for patronizing Tibet in the other sense of the term (making light of the plight of the Tibetan people vs funding their culinary culture). And they said - no, in fact, we are educating people...but I still don't see how that makes us want to buy Groupons.
    I'm not going to be scandalized about making light of serious issues. I'm just not sure how I'm supposed to be psychologically manipulated into buying this service, and maybe that is why it is most unsettling to me.

  2. Chels! - I was debating about wading into the Groupon waters, and only declined to do so because I find the narrative of the three car commercials together really interesting. But I'm really glad you commented about it, because, I mean, what a farce! This was an ad from people AIMING TO DO BUSINESS IN CHINA. I saw one article claiming it might have been the worst Super Bowl ad in history.

    But what were they trying to do? Like--how did they think this was a good idea?

    My thinking is that, along with the notion that "luxury" is okay again, so is good old fashioned middle-class conspicuous consumption. Groupon thinks it is is bearing the new Gospel in this department. What I think they were actually trying to tap into (rather than this inversion of altruism they've been talking about [which, I think, is just absolute horsh*t]), is twofold:

    1) It's a big time no-no in a cultural capitalist moment to show people enjoying the things they buy just because those things are enjoyable. There are a lot of corporations selling us on the idea that we're not just buying products--we're buying an ethics (Zizek on Starbucks is fantastic here, but I think the Levi's campaign "Go Forth to Work" is pretty nefarious in this way if you want to see an example). People don't like the veil being lifted. We've become so enraptured with the idea that our consumption can help people that when Groupon messes up the equation and reminds us that we're still *just* consumers, people get mad.

    In other words, part of the problem is that Groupon inadvertently told the truth. We exploit places like Tibet as consumers of "Let's Go" style cultural tourism.

    2) But yeah, the Hurley one doesn't fit that. I wonder if this kind of commercial would have seemed so dastardly before America had become a "kinder gentler place." In that one Groupon just kind of wields images of foreign countries being deforested just for the fun of it. Because why not? Because the Super Bowl is one of the biggest media events of the year, and we produce it here in America, where we're concerned about things like Brazilian waxes, and why would anyone begrudge us that? Maybe this was just Groupon being tone deaf when it comes to realizing that America can't swing around these kinds of images so flippantly anymore in the lovie-dovie Obama era. We're supposed to be more responsible consumers (see above)

    I don't know if this really captures it, but these things raised my blood pressure considerably. I hate that they're here in Chicago (but I did buy the Groupon for Brazilian Wax....duh)

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