February 05, 2007

The theme of this year's superbowl ads

I enjoyed the game last night, but I mostly skipped the commercials. That wasn't for lack of interest -- it's just that now that we've got YouTube, we don't need to watch the superbowl anymore to see the superbowl commercials. And internet access to the whole inventory is a better way to see the pattern whole.

As a result, I've got an advantage over Virginia Heffernan, who liveblogged the superbowl commercials over at The Sideshow. She observed that "Dude humor is humor for dudes. It’s the only foolproof thing that works in a Super Bowl ad". And that might be true, but it's not new.

As for her NYT collegue Stuart Elliott, pontificating after the fact ("Superbowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War", 2/5/2007), he thought that "the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials". But I think he was reaching.

Frankly, I think it's obvious to any objective observer with access to an internet connection that the emergent theme of this year's superbowl ads was linguistics.

I don't have time to show you how almost every single one of this year's superbowl ads fits this pattern. But I'll go over a few of them, and leave the rest to you.

Let's start withFedEx Ground's meditation on the nature of names, from which the vidcap up there on the right was taken:

If you think about it, our civilization is out of step with human cultural history on this point -- in most times and places, most people's names were interpretable descriptions.

One of the Doritos "Live the Flavor" ads took the "words and things" theme in a slightly different direction:

And let's not forget the Bud Light "Rock Paper Scissors" ad, designed to illustrate the distinction between use and mention:

Then there was a demonstration of the power of prosody in the Doritos "Check Out Girl" spot:

And practical sociophonetics was the main theme of Bud Light's course in American dialect geography, "Class Mencia":

In a similar vein, the importance (and difficulty!) of getting another language's phonetics right was also a central focus of the ad for Taco Bell's "New Steak Grilled Taquitos":

OK, so was Stuart Elliott justified in saying that "the ongoing war seemed to linger just below the surface of many of this year’s commercials"?

I don't see it, myself. As far as I can tell, what's lingering just below the surface of this year's superbowl ads is Americans' too-long-supressed desire for more linguistics in their life.

[I'll admit that there wasn't a whole lot of syntax in this year's superads -- but could that be a hint of the emergent theme for Superbowl XLII? ]

[Update -- Mark Seidenberg writes:

Your discussion of the fedex names ad brought to mind this classic bit about eponymy.

Right, and the sporadic typo "doucebag" for "douchebag" adds extra flavor. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 5, 2007 02:11 PM