The Aesthetics of Super Bowl Ads

Let's kick off our annual analysis of the most striking of this year's Super Bowl ads by celebrating the editing principles behind these mixtures of entertainment and hype.
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For the first time in long memory, this year's Super Bowl XXXVIII was actually worth watching for the game itself. You know, that's the fussing around on the field that happens between the high-priced commercials that this year averaged $2.25 million for a 30-second spot. But despite Adam Vinatieri's 41-yard cliffhanger field goal in the final four seconds that put the Pats over the Cats 32-29, much of this year's post-game chatter concerned aesthetics, which my American Heritage dictionary defines as "Guiding principles in matters of artistic beauty and taste." No, I'm not yet referring to Janet Jackson's peek-a-boob flashdance but its relevance will come into play shortly.

Let's kick off our annual analysis of the most striking of this year's Super Bowl ads by celebrating the editing principles behind these mixtures of entertainment and hype. This column has always defined "editing" as the creative act of combining two discrete ideas to create a third, disparate concept in the mind of the viewer. This can be expressed in the formula B + C = A, where "B" and "C" are the audiovisual elements being juxtaposed and "A" is the intended impression the audience is supposed to receive.

Of course, being an art form, it is not always guaranteed that the intended "A" imprint will result. And being a commercial art form, everyone involved has to recognize that the audience views the video fireworks through the filters of their own life experience. So editors, or whoever is responsible for banging "B" and "C" together, have to be aware of the higher level of aesthetic appreciation expressed as B2 + C2 = A2, because in addition to nachos and chicken wings, every Super Bowl partygoer brings his or her own preconceptions to the game.

Fortunately, editors have three overarching communication tools that guide their aesthetic alchemy, our Holy Trinity of context, contrast and rhythm, and the ads of Super Bowl XXXVIII provided prime examples of each.

THE IBM SPOT

"Contrast" refers to the intentional difference between shots in a sequence, and nowhere was this more effectively used than in IBM's minimalist spot touting the Linux operating system that ran right after the Carolina Panthers' Shane Burton blocked the Patriot's field goal with 6:08 left in the second quarter. In a visual style that emulated George Lucas's "THX 1138" as closely as the classic 1984 Macintosh ad borrowed from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," it started with a pullback from a blank-faced kid in a featureless white room. As we hear Muhammad Ali's voice shouting, "They'll never make me an underdog. They'll never stop me," the ad cuts to an overhead wide shot and we see the child is looking at archival footage of the famed heavyweight on a black-and-white TV set perched atop an isolated table. All the visual elements of the spot have been established in the first five seconds, and its message is conveyed by the contrast of cutting between the kid (a computer geek or ghost of the future?) and the rebellious Ali yelling, "I shook up the world! I shook up the world!"

Suddenly a modern Ali is sitting in a chair opposite the child, telling him personally to "shake up the world." The boy looks up, smiling, and we cut to a simple graphic: "Linux" that dissolves into the phrase "The Future is Open." Without fancy graphics or digital effects, IBM's pitch about not letting established prejudices block out maverick possibilities is conveyed through the simple contrast between shots of an old warrior and a new seeker.

SUPER MACHO

"Rhythm," or the temporal element of editing's pace, became the primary element in Gillette's super macho 60-second ad during the third quarter with New England up 14-10 over Carolina. This spot's monochrome imagery had an even greater impact since it followed a colorful trailer for the film "Hidalgo," but if you viewed this ad silently without knowing its sponsor the stream of images would be almost baffling.

Triumphal quick cuts of men scoring in various sports are intercut with sensual close-ups of male faces and female eyes admiring them driven by a constant rhythm as unrelenting as a primordial chant. A voiceover intones, "You know the feeling. You're unstoppable. Unbeatable."--while the Cut! Cut! Cut! editing pendulum marches on. About 20 seconds into the ad we start to see shots of Gillette shavers quickly followed by passionate kisses accelerating into touching and fondling as a men's choir proclaims, "The feeling that you get when you're at your very best." The incessant beat propels us toward the climactic line, "I never want to lose that feeling. It's the best, man!" as the logo "Gillette: The Best a Man Can Get" burns across the screen.

The amorphous content of the images becomes almost irrelevant to the reassuring propulsion of that indefatigable rhythm. Like an urban drumbeat, rhythm becomes the central impetus thrusting the message forward, telling all men that they can be winners if they shave with the proper razor. As much as I admired the totality of the ad's production, I found myself scratching my beard in wonder at its confluence of images.

"Context" has been saved for last since it involves the whole mystique of the Super Bowl. One of the ads that most effectively played off the audience's expectations of commercial cacophony aired with 6:53 left in the fourth quarter and the Cats up by a point. We see a fairly conventional shot of a Cadillac SRX VG careening along mountain roads, but there is no sound. Even a tight close-up of the driver mouthing "Wow" was M.O.S (an old film term for a take without mikes, or "mit out sound"). The Caddy Daddies had caught us unawares by double-crossing our expectations of boisterous Super Bowl ads, and just to show it wasn't a fluke, they repeated the silent treatment 14 minutes later by rerunning the same spot with 2:51 left in the game--a clever and effective ploy.

But the strongest invocation of editorial context came toward the end of the first half when Budweiser opened a commercial with a beautiful winter forest scene. We crane down on a horse-drawn sleigh nestled in the snow as the woman says, "This is so romantic." Her beau replies, "Well, it's about to get a little bit more romantic." and hands her a candle to hold. While he digs some Bud Lights out of a cooler we are presented with a sequence of some of the most unforgettable shots in the context of family entertainment: 1) The horse's tail arches up; 2) the woman's eyes widen in horror; 3) from the side we see a "mighty wind" accompanied by familiar SFX blow the woman backward; 5) the candle's flame is caught in the blast; 4) cutaway to the horse looking over its shoulder. 5) the man joins his now charred and windswept date asking, "Do you smell barbecue?"

Just as a topper, some passersby chime in, "Cool. A rocket sled."

Yes, the context of the calm pastoral winter scene juxtaposed against fast-cut editing to stun the estimated 90 million Sunday evening viewers sure was effective. In fact, if Janet Jackson had not had her "wardrobe malfunction," Bud Light's irreverent bon mot along with other ads filled with horny chimps, crotch-biting dogs and that bikini wax gag probably would have prompted an even greater discussion of Super Bowl aesthetics. That is B2 + C2 = A2 implemented to the max, and in some people's minds we now know what kind of a "bowl" to which they are referring.