With every turn of the screw, super excitement builds as the eyes of this super nation turn toward the Superdome where on this Super Sunday Super Bowl XXIV will answer this question: How will advertisers spend their $1.4 million per minute?
The winner by Sunday evening will be America because when this efficient event (it displays everything repellent about contemporary life, encrusting something admirable, athletic excellence, beneath barnacles of vulgarity) is over, it will be over. But the Super Bowl is our great national campfire around which we cluster: More than 40 percent of all television households will be tuned into this, the most watched program. So herewith, a spectator's guide to watching the point of it all - the commercials.Leftists, perhaps, still believe advertising is one of the ruling class's instruments of social control, instilling ``false consciousness' in the masses. But nowadays no serious person believes the hoary liberal theory that advertising annihilates consumer sovereignty. (See John Kenneth Galbraith's ``The Affluent Society,' 1958.)
If advertising could manufacture wants willy-nilly, most new products would not fail. The creation by advertising of a new ``need,' ex nihilo, is so rare, it is the stuff of legends, as with the 1920s Listerine commercials that showed, for example, the woman who was ``often a bridesmaid and never a bride' because ``even your closest friends won't tell you' you have ``halitosis.' Before that, no one thought they needed mouthwash.
Historian Daniel Boorstin has said that Europeans used to go to market to get what they want, whereas Americans go to discover what they want. In the developed world, we are all Americans now and the market comes to consumers, via television.
Today, most advertising does little informing about either the existence or attributes of a product, but some still does. Gillette, having spent $200 million designing a new razor cartridge, will begin on Super Sunday spending its 1990 ad budget of $110 million to sell lots of $4 razor sets. And some advertising communicates immediately useful and unquestionably truthful information (say, this soda or that fast-food sandwich is on sale this month). But what is that Coke commercial with all the folks singing on the hillside trying to do? Make you feel good and associate that feeling with the world's best-known product.
Diet 7-Up has a new silver can. ``A more male look,' explains a soda-can metaphysician. The excruciating inanities of the ``Bud Bowl' commercials may not be intended to make us retch, but neither are those commercials supposed to make us thirsty. If all beer ads disappeared, would less beer be swilled? Most beer commercials are weapons in the battle for market share, and are not designed to create new beer drinkers. Facts can only sell significantly dissimilar products, hence all the factless, bluff, hearty, male-bonding beer commercials featuring trout, bimbos and Bob Uecker.
Often the only discernible difference between competing products is the ``personality' generated for each by its advertising. Such advertising must be reiterated to sustain a manufactured, perishable personality. Hence much advertising focuses not on the product to be sold - say, Bo Jackson's sneakers - but on the consumer whose psyche is to be stroked: ``Be in Bo's shoes - just do it!'
The advertising sometimes is more important to the consumer than the product is. Or, more precisely, the advertising completes the product, which in a sense is what the consumer feels about it.
A product is apt to be preferred over similar competitors because it is associated in the consumer's consciousness - well, semi-consciousness - with some pleasure or reassurance. The first commandment of a commercial society - ``Thou shall covet' - now means: Covet not just the product's intrinsic qualities but also its acquired meaning. Meaning is acquired from advertising.
The trick is to invest a product with symbolic values suited to consumers' aspirations and longings. This change of advertising from informational to emotional appeals has taken a new turn by playing on yuppie angst. Ads for Johnson outboard motors feature photos of a pensive, troubled father whose son, in the background, stares at a television set. The pitch is: Hey, fast-tracker, buy a boat and spend ``quality time' with your children.
The principle is that advertising is not about something, it is to someone. Advertising, not its audience, is manipulated, to serve the audience's emotional needs.
As television's advertising clutter intensifies with shorter, louder, more frenetic commercials, viewers remember fewer than two of the hundreds they see each day. So? Make them louder, more frenetic. Thus the MTV-ization of American life.
Sunday's spectacle of advertising will occasionally be interrupted by football, but do not be distracted from the main event. Duane Thomas, a running back in the 1970s (oops, I mean the MCMLXXs), said of the Super Bowl, subversively, ``If it's the ultimate, how come they're playing it again next year?'
Because the Super Bowl is the penultimate. America's great nonstop game - there is no clock - is the art of selling.