We just took a look at the Super Bowl ad for Genesis starring Legend & Teigen. I’ll shortly be taking a closer look at some other ads, including Porsche and that Super Bowl stalwart Oil of Olay. First, a short digression.
It is commonplace to point out that ads are worthy subjects of cultural inquiry. But since every inquirer has a somewhat different take on things it is worth pointing out my own biases relative to advertising and culture.
We go through our days partly in a haze. Many things that happen in real life are random and follow no pattern. Our minds are built to look for patterns and we think we succeed a lot. We have to. But we often kid ourselves when we cry “Eureka”. Often life is simply too random and no pattern exists. Sometimes the pattern is too complex to be grasped readily. Sometimes patterns can be grasped but they are multiple and conflicting, and we only see one, or prefer one over others. Sometimes our pattern discerning skills are not that good, or biases and ideological thinking get in the way, and we miss obvious patterns that ought to be readily grasped.
Daniel Kahneman’s research suggests our minds have two modes of operation. The central thesis of his book Thinking Fast and Slow
is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.
In a somewhat similar vein Ellen Langer pioneered some decades ago the concept of Mindfulness. The concept spawned an industry that has a New Age, meditative air about it. Yet Langer, a “a whirlwind whose mind goes a mile a minute”, is not herself a paragon of Zen non-being. For her being mindful is not only about meditation–though it can be that. It is mostly about not being mindless–not automatically engaging in default mindless behavior (she cautions that mindless-mindful does not map perfectly onto Kahneman’s System 1-System 2 but you could fool me).
On the one hand, as the saying goes, life imitates art. The patterns that we see in our mind we can project onto the world. Thus many things in our cultural life–our relationships, values, behaviors–can be thought of as products generated by our pattern-seeking brains. When two or more share patterns we have a relationship in which productive communication can take place. When a whole bunch of patterns cohere among a lot of people–hey, we got a culture!
But if life imitats art art arises out of life. That is, art and things like it are ways of exhibiting via human creativity and labor the patterns that we see and that are meaningful to us. Thus we can get into interminable debates about media like film via tools like auteur theory.
Is the film best viewed as expressing the vision of one guiding intelligence? Do other intelligences of other people play a role in the product? How much of what is on screen is intentional and how much, if you will, random, a function of unanticipated light on film stock, improvisation of lines or a bird flying into the frame?
And when we say intentional what do we mean? Do we mean mindfully intentional only–i.e., the auteur consciously thought through and planned to entire gestalt down to its details? Or can we be mindlessly intentional, meaning that what shows on screen may well reflect some kind of vision in the mind of the auteur, but that he or she did not consciously dwell on each and every piece that comprises the whole?
Now consider this set of issues in the consideration of television advertisements. The maker of commercials must distill everything down to a minute (or a little longer for so-called “extended” ads, like the one for Porsche, that can be viewed online). The extreme shortness of the medium requires great economy in the telling of a story, often using cinematic tricks and tropes in shorthand such that a viewer who knows the vocabulary can fill in the blanks in what amounts to a tiny little movie.
Intentionality must rule here! And a mindful intentionality to boot! Every line of the script must scrubbed, every camera shot weighed and considered, every casting decision, every nuance. There is very little room for error. Randomness is the enemy. But even worse is a mindless intentionality. What if you “weren’t thinking”, and some of your unconscious thinking makes its way into the final product? What if you were “expressing yourself” but only at a less than conscious level? The pattern making skills of the audience might find you out, and come to a different opinion of what they are seeing when they view the ad.
This is a preface to viewing the Porsche Super Bowl ad, a nifty little movie called “The Heist.”
The Genesis ad we saw last was pretty in-your-face. It was easy to see the parts at work. It was clearly a vehicle in which the non-white and young established dominion over the white and old, with that clear bias made permissible by various contrivances, such as the camouflaging of the whiter and older behind the straw man of “Old Luxury”.
The Porsche ad is different. It comes at your blazingly fast. And, as often happens in action films, you give up your critical faculties quite quickly. Good car chase scenes can cause you to suspend disbelief in a heartbeat, and you don’t always pay close attention to what you are seeing. So we will go through the ad step by step, slowing down the action to see if we can determine the mindful intentionality that surely went into it.
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“And when we say intentional what do we mean? Do we mean mindfully intentional only–i.e., the auteur consciously thought through and planned to entire gestalt down to its details?”
Well, they go to film school and learn technical things. Making movies or ads involves a lot of people which rationalizes the process. They scan the internet and find out what’s trending in their target market. In this case they want to sell a particular product – a car brand or a facial cream (?). They hire people for textures, lighting, costumes, music, dialogue, etc. to motivate the target market to buy the brand. The brand becomes a kind of star, I guess.
Generally speaking someone like Fellini wants to sell the images, gestures and sounds in time themselves and of course their own stardom and that of their actors. That said, Fellini, it seems to me, was interested in the tension between Dionysian excess, which was revving up at that time, vs. his Apollonian upbringing. I don’t think he was trying to sell another brand besides “Fellini” and he could tell a story that might be both topical and classic.
These super bowl ads are strictly topical pop culture, I think. They will be seen a generation from now in some sort of anthropological sense as objects like the cars in a Perry Mason episode, circa 1960. Interesting but not current, looking quaint, like 1950s fighter jets instead of vehicles able to reach Mars and beyond. Whereas Fellini may very well deeply resonate with humans 1,000 years from now because fundamental human nature cannot change.
Thank you for your series on the super bowl. As a thought experiment, I suggest you view super bowl ads like someone coming from another planet. Examine the textures, types of sounds, lighting, why the characters are acting in such a fashion and the purpose or motivation of the unknown people who produced such a transient sensual experience. After all, an auteur is someone who has a name and this experience doesn’t seem to have one.