Friday, January 24, 2003
These aren't your grandfather's ads
By Eric Neel Page 2 columnist
Consider football commercials then and now.
Used to be, it was "Mean" Joe Greene and his tattered jersey, and a wide-eyed
kid with a Coke. Used to be, it was a star and a fan connecting; it was
generosity, it was hopes and dreams, gratitude and warmth. It was earnest
with a capital E. So much wholesome good feeling shooting through the screen
you almost wanted to touch the TV.
The game was rough, yes, but it had a soft underbelly; it was human, and
Beyonce got everyone into an early groove during the pregame show.
And there was a time not so very long ago when you might be treated to
high-concept, to something that would shake up your world. There was a time
when a renegade Mac woman with a sledge hammer (was it the hammer of freedom?
was it the hammer of justice? was it the hammer of love between the brothers
and the sisters all over this land?) would bum-rush the stage and bring the
Big Brother-man and his dreary, double-think conformity to its knees.
The game was a think-piece and a revolution, a clash of styles and
strategies, a contest made up of equal parts force and fundamentals.
And in the old days, guys sat around the campfire regaling each other with
stories and sipping a Michelob. They were warm, and cheered by the
company, and glad in the knowledge that it just didn't get any better than
In the dying light of their fire, the game was comradery, and a haven from
the hassles of the work-a-day world.
These days, it's a little different.
These days, it's post-punk frenzy, tailgate dogs, mud-slop games ... and
twins. It's excess and gluttony. Quick-cuts. Crowds. Mayhem. And twins.
Hug a TV, grab a fistful of ice-cold Coors, eye a couple of twins. Revel and
Rock On. The game is a spectacle, a party, a riot. It's carnival time and the
masses have taken to the streets. With those twins.
Nowadays, the age-old Miller Light debate between "tastes great" and "less
filling" ends up in a fountain bath and a mud wash. Nowadays, it's the T in
titillating that gets top billing. It's tight shots on the fantasy channel --
so much quasi-erotica on the screen you almost want to touch the TV -- and
the whole thing wrapped up in a wink-and-a-nod bow around two caveman boys
and their incredulous dates.
The game is unleashed urges and dreams, now. Urges and dreams, and, sure,
the nagging suspicion that maybe you can't always get what you want, but
maybe, maybe also the slightest, sneakingest hope that if you try sometimes,
you just might find, you just might find, you get what you need, ah yeah.
And today, a guy snuggles up on the couch with a Bud and a girl wearing her
ex-boyfriend's sweatshirt. Every line is a thinly-veiled ... check that,
not-at-all-veiled, double ... check that ... single-entendre about size, feel
And this game today -- the one on the field, the one between you and her --
is just another anxious, joke's-on-you chance to be reminded of who and what you ain't.
Times have changed.
The question is, have they changed for the better or worse? Do these new
spots represent an evolution or a devolution?
On the one hand, quick-cuts are annoying, the pitch is a splatter-gun mess
of simple equations between eating, drinking, watching, playing and
flirting. The twins thing is just an excuse for thrill-shots, and everything
is turned up, like Nigel's bass, to 11, for no other reason than, well, it's
one more, isn't it?
On the other hand, that's a catchy tune, and there's something appealing
about the unapologetic, reckless fun of the spot. It's almost admirable how
they've reduced the thing to its essence.
On the downside, the catfight ad is practically soft-core, the punch line is
a tag-on, a free pass to do anything, and, I'm sorry, there's no way those
On the upside, it goes over the top to rope you in. The inappropriateness of
it is what makes the punch line work, and the punch line is everything. This
is a spoof on guys, guys with quotes, guys being "guys." The spot is at
their expense and, to its credit, it uses their most meathead impulses
against them and makes them like it.
The whole Bud couch scene plays like elementary school kids giggling and
making jokes in the bathroom. Makes me think I've seriously underestimated the enduring
cultural impact of "Porkys."
At the same time, it's so blatant it's kind of interesting. Not in itself,
but in the way it skips blithely over the line between what you can and
can't get away with. Bud ends up banking not on the joke but on the idea
that they're edgy. And they score bonus points, too, for cutting against the
grain and putting the woman in the driver's seat and the guy on the
The thing that makes the ads work is that they're hard to get a straight,
simple read on. They're base and sophisticated at the same time, and they
know, and are willing to mess with, their audiences. You can't dismiss 'em,
can't flat-out love 'em, and can't forget 'em.
The old spots were great, but they were innocent and you never had to think
These are entertaining and ironic -- you have to wrestle with them: are you
repulsed or do you dig them; can it be both?
That devolutionary-evolutionary doubleness is what makes them effective.
It's either that or the hot smokin' babes.
I can't be sure.
It ain't easy to figure out. It's hard work, I tell you.
I'm beat just thinking about it.
I think I need a drink.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.