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The Super Bowl commercials were really bad this year, huh?

The 2019 ads weren’t for products so much as capitalism itself — precisely at a time when skepticism in capitalism is growing.

Go get ’em, nut man!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There’s a sequence in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the 2018 sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph, wherein Ralph, a video game villain who finds himself wandering the backroads of the internet, finds himself in a sort of meme studio, a factory designed to just keep coming up with funny ideas that might make people laugh, provided they’re in video or GIF form.

Ralph turns out to be a natural at this form of meme-making. He’ll throw himself into any wild scenario, expose himself to any form of terrible pain if it means a few quick laughs. He’ll even let himself be attacked by a swarm of angry bees; so long as such a stunt boosts his popularity, why not? He needs the money. (I’m not going to summarize the plot of Ralph Breaks the Internet here — but trust me, he needs the money.)

Watching the Super Bowl commercials during this year’s Big Game, I thought often of Ralph and his desperate meme hucksterism. They weren’t ads so much as frantic pop culture mashups, and they rarely felt like commercials for specific products but rather some notion of a capitalist society in general. Beer commercials would become Game of Thrones commercials, and NFL legends would star in what amounted to wacky sitcom versions of the league, and The Big Lebowski’s the Dude would hang out with Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw.

The mashups extended beyond the obvious ones. A Pringles ad was also sorta, kinda an ad for the Amazon Echo (except it was never identified as an Echo by either that name or the more famous “Alexa”). Celebrities popped up, early and often, which isn’t new, of course, but they often felt like a dim spackle over everything else, a way to patch over holes in products, in brand strategies, in an entire society. You might not think about any of the many problems surrounding Amazon if Harrison Ford was there to comically menace a dog.

The old cliché about the Super Bowl has long been that the ads are so much better than the game. To be sure, that was true this year — but largely only because the game was one of the worst ever played, a sloppy, low-scoring affair both teams seemed to be trying to lose. The ads won the night, even though they, too, seemed to be aiming to throw the contest.

The 2019 Super Bowl commercials, like this country, felt weirdly overheated and overhyped

If you’re like me, the Super Bowl is one of the few times a year when you still see ads. These days, very little of my TV viewing happens live — though I watch a lot of pre-air screeners to do my job, I also catch up on almost all of my favorite shows, like so many other TV fans in 2019, via streaming sites or DVR recordings.

Every year, dropping in on the game is like dropping in on some alternate world, where the biggest catchphrase of the last several years (apparently) is “Dilly Dilly.” What does it mean? It almost doesn’t matter. The joke is a nudge in the ribs from someone who knows when you don’t, a smirk from an America that still watches a lot of live TV, or at least a lot of live sports. (When the “Dilly Dilly” guys showed up in a Bud Light ad tonight, they got set on fire by one of the Game of Thrones dragons, because pop culture can’t stop eating its own tail.)

But the collapse of live TV viewership in general has caused so many commercials to chase their own tails, frantically trying to get you excited when you happen to turn up for some major event. (Join me in a few weeks for an Oscars ceremony that’s sure to be full of just as many inept celebrity cameos and pop culture mashups.)

And for Super Bowl commercials, increasingly, that takes the form of desperate flailing, an overheated attempt to create a #BigMoment that might trend on social media for a little bit before we all get back to dunking on Maroon 5. The 2019 commercials were, in other words, products of the internet’s endless meme factory, and rarely ones that actually succeeded in their aims.

Indeed, they made me downright twitchy at times. They felt less like the work of corporate marketing executives and more like they’d been blended together by some sentient algorithm that plucked a bunch of trending topics from random common Google searches. (Given the fact that several of the ads were for big tech giants like Google and Amazon, it’s entirely possible they were somewhat assembled by algorithms.)

They were constantly aware of our tech overlords, but they also seemed all too happy to live in the panopticon, to be surrounded by machines that could watch our every move but might also despair at their inability to escape our clutches. The not-Echo of the Pringles ad had an existential crisis. A robot golfed. A man nearly died and was sad when his life was saved because he didn’t get to drive an Audi. Together, they presented a world where all of us, man and machine, are falling short of paradise, stuck in an overheated, overhyped existence that cares more about brand awareness than anything else.

Unlike a couple of years ago, in the immediate wake of the 2016 election — when many of the Super Bowl commercials took on the tinge of being political through what ad merchants clearly thought were going to be totally anodyne “It’s time to come together, and look how strong our diversity makes us” messages that became much more fraught in the early days of the Trump administration — 2019’s commercials were mostly interested in the pursuit of randomness. (Give or take, that is, The Handmaid’s Tale quoting Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign in the name of burning everything down.)

They were less propaganda for their chosen products than propaganda for a whole system that is sloughing off an old version of itself and becoming something new. They felt like ads for TV ads, like they wanted to remind us of how much fun we all had with “Where’s the beef?” and “Whazzzzzup” and those dogs that dressed up like hot dogs and really loved ketchup. (Maybe that last one was only loved that much by me.)

The tunes were familiar — picking pointless fights with competitors (Miller Light and Coors Light are made with corn syrup???); elaborate special effects sequences in the name of not particularly good jokes; Charlie Sheen popping up to speak a single line — but the whole enterprise felt threadbare and over-obvious. We already know all these songs. Where was the new material? Where was something entertaining or even cheesy? (One thing I will remember: a Planter’s ad concluding with a man shouting, “Go get ’em, nut man!” which is a catchphrase so stupid, it almost works.)

Instead, they all had an air of flop sweat about them, as if they longed to take us back to an era when commercials regularly spawned catchphrases and we had no way of avoiding them, which is totally unlike this current era, where there are so many commercials around us all the time that they start to feel a little like wallpaper.

This is, I guess, what the Super Bowl looks like in an age of growing suspicion of the capitalist project itself. We keep watching the commercials because we always have, and we keep acting like they matter because we always have. But none of them actually do, and at a certain point, we could just stop caring. But maybe not just yet, or at least not today. Today, at least, we can all say, as one, battered but defiant nation, our fondest national credo: Go get ’em, nut man.