This Sunday America will be brought together in one of the few events that pretty much everyone in the country watches, or at least has some opinion about. Yes, it’s Super Bowl time — the final game of the (American) football season. But the adverts, the half-time show, and the food are equally as important as the actual game.
On Sunday evening the New England Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons at NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, for Super Bowl LI (that’s number 51 for those who don’t know their Latin numerals; I haven’t the faintest idea why the Super Bowl is numbered this way). This marks the culmination of a season that started with pre-season games back in August. There are 32 teams in the National Football League (NFL), divided into two conferences. After each team has played 16 regular season games, the four best teams in each conference go into the playoffs; the final two meet up in the Super Bowl.
This year, punters are expecting a high-scoring game, with the Patriots favored to win by three points. This is their ninth appearance at the Super Bowl (the most of any team). Sunday marks the Falcons’ first trip to the Super Bowl since 1999 and only the second in the franchise’s history. So, naturally, a lot of people will be rooting for the Falcons just because they’re sick of seeing the Patriots win.
As I know next-to-nothing about (American) football, despite being married to a lifelong fan, I’ll avoid saying anything else about the actual game. Which is fine because, as with most American events, shopping, entertainment, and food are a big part of the whole thing.
For every analyst pontificating about the strengths and weaknesses of the two contestants, there is at least one more who is focused on the ads. By Monday morning there will be a slew of articles and media blurbs on the “best and worst” ads of the game. It’s like waiting for the annual John Lewis Christmas ad to drop — only much, much bigger. Personally, I’ll only be paying attention to the TV screen when the ads come on.
(http://www.superbowl-commercials.org has the current crop of “leaked” and previewed commercials for Super Bowl LI, as well as most of the ones from past seasons.)
The rights to broadcast the game cycle among the major broadcast networks; this year, it’s the turn of the Fox network. Fox reportedly set this year’s base rate for a 30-second commercial at $5 million (the same as CBS charged last year). At those prices, it’s not surprising that advertisers pull out all the stops to create buzz. Some companies have taken to releasing “teasers” for their ads in the week before the game, while others release previews of the full ad on YouTube. Creative pitches with celebrity cameos and special effects are common. In fact, given how bland and uncreative American TV ads tend to be, it’s pretty much the only time you’ll see anything overtly humorous or vaguely risqué.
At the time of writing, there’s a lot of attention on three of the upcoming ads. Snickers (a chocolate bar made by Mars, Inc.) has announced that, for the first time in super bowl history, it will be presenting a live commercial (actually, Advertising Age points out that in 1981 Schlitz did a live taste-test commercial, but it would be pedantic to point that out).
Skittles (a small, hard candy also made by a division of Mars) released its ad “Romance” on YouTube on Tuesday; by Wednesday afternoon it was on YouTube’s list of trending videos and had amassed more than 500,000 views. It’s a cute little number with a young man lobbing Skittles at his girlfriend’s bedroom window; inside we see the whole family (along with a guy in a ski mask and a local cop) lining up on the couch to gleefully catch the candy in their mouths as it flies in through the open window.
Budweiser beer has a reputation for producing some of the most iconic and well-crafted Super Bowl ads. In recent years, they’ve gone for “heart-warming” slots that feature their famous Clydesdale horses. The 2015 slot, with a man looking for his lost puppy, was an outright tear-jerker, but so well staged that you could forgive the sentiment.
This year’s ad takes a different tack and is already generating a lot of debate. It’s a minute-long piece called “Born the Hard Way,” which they debuted this week. It focuses on a German immigrant in the mid-19th century who makes it to America, facing an arduous voyage and angry crowds shouting, “You’re not wanted here.” The young man finally gets to St. Louis, where he ends up becoming one half of the duo that created Budweiser. The company says the ad conveys a message about “not backing down from beliefs and dreams,” but after days of protests over President DT’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, it’s hard not to see the spot as an overt political statement on the positive effects of immigration. It’ll be interesting to see if the so-called “alt-right” start calling for a boycott of Bud.
The Halftime show
Last year’s Super Bowl was the third-most watched broadcast in US TV viewing history with an average 111.9 million TV viewers. And this doesn’t count people who may have been watching at bars or restaurants. The viewing peak came between 8:30pm and 9:00pm eastern time, when an average 115.5 million people tuned in — for the half-time show. With numbers like that, artists are eager to perform in a show that can make — and occasionally, come close to break — their careers.
My personal favorite in recent years was 2009, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band showed how it’s done with a hard-hitting, superbly executed show of rock standards. No flash and glitter, just classy showmanship based on pure skill.
Last year, Coldplay were the headliners, with appearances by Bruno Mars and Beyoncé. While Coldplay’s set was generally forgettable, Beyoncé stole the show, with a dynamic rendition of “Formation” and an overt racial-justice theme.
The most controversial in recent years was the 2004 show headlined by Janet Jackson. Near the end of the high-energy set, surprise guest Justin Timberlake joined Janet on stage and America was briefly treated to a “wardrobe malfunction” swiftly dubbed “Nipplegate.” Yes, America went nuts over a less-than-one-second flash of a woman’s nipple. Her thoroughly entertaining set, complete with calls for the audience to reject bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance, was all forgotten in the ensuing “indecent exposure” scandal. (As I’ve written elsewhere, Americans Can Be So Coy!)
This year’s halftime headliner? Lady Gaga. In a recent interview for CBS Sports she said, “I think the challenge is to look at it and say, ‘What can I do differently’?” This should be good.
The final aspect of all this is the super bowl party. Different families and regions have different preferences but around here the favorites seem to be: chicken wings with various sauces; ribs; pizza; chili; tortillas, nachos, and chips, with dips like guacamole and pico de gallo; and beer. Lots and lots of beer.
Which takes us to one of the more bizarre local Super Bowl ‘traditions’ — the wing bowl. Started by a pair of Philadelphia talk-radio hosts in 1993, this is a local eating contest to see who can snarf down the most chicken wings. It’s held the Friday morning before the Super Bowl and has become quite the media event. The Wells Fargo Center, which seats 19,500, sold out this year — for an event that starts at 4:00 a.m. There are side-contests and the competitors are paraded around the packed arena on floats, escorted by young women in minuscule bikinis called the Wingettes. (No, I’m not making this up.) A large amount of beer is consumed throughout the morning.
This morning’s winner was 50-year old Bob Shoudt, who managed to down 409 wings over the course of two 14-minute rounds and one two-minute final. The oldest Wing Bowl winner, Bob took home $10,000, a new car, a ring and medal, and a fair amount of local media exposure. And if you really want to know, the record stands at 444 wings, at the 2015 Wing Bowl (the dubious honor belonging to one Patrick Bertoletti). It’s not an entirely male sport — last year’s winner was a woman, Molly Schuyler, who won with 429 wings.Today, she entertained the crowd with a solo performance in which she devoured 4.5 pounds of steak and a pound of mashed potatoes in 3 minutes and 18 seconds.
There’s probably something meaningful to say here about the American celebration of excess, but frankly this is just an image I’d rather not dwell on any longer.