More than a game, more than an ad, and more romances

Last weekend was the SuperBowl, which was both objectively and subjectively a classic.

Inside the Numbers: Mahomes adds another Super Bowl comeback to his ledger

I was not a football fan as a kid. I was - steel yourself for this revelation - kind of a scrawny nerd! I certainly didn’t play, and I didn’t really know the rules, and I thought that the people who liked football were some sort of alien species. Fun fact: I literally learned how to throw a spiral in January of this year, taught by my ten-year-old nephew. My relationship with football wasn’t hostile: there was no bullying by the team or anything. It was just the Other. (That the Other included people like my sister and father and the greater percentage of the Kansas City area did not phase me. Clearly it was a collective delusion.) I revelled in my Outsider status. Not liking football made me a renegade. Take that, everyone else.

Oddly, I know the exact moment I got into football. I was a freshman in high school, and my parents had the Kansas City Star delivered every morning. Something must’ve gone wrong, because instead of only reading the comics, I also read the front of the sports page, which was about the visiting Carolina Panthers and their ferocious zone blitz. Maybe it was the phrase ‘zone blitz’? Or the cool Panthers logo? But something about that article that stuck in my head, even though I had no idea what any of it meant.

Later that day, some acquaintances - not friends, but at a small school we all knew one another - were talking about the upcoming game. Walking by, I bravely contributed something like ‘and that zone blitz is badass’. To my surprise, they shuffled over a bit to include me, and continued the conversation. With me in it.

A fan was born.

Don’t get me wrong. I really like the football parts of football. I love the macro-level of it - someone once described it as ‘chess with violence’, and I am amazed and astounded by the difficult tactical decisions that need to be made, at speed, by coaches and players. I also love the micro-level of it, especially as someone that never played. I like learning the importance of a lineman’s hand movements, or a rushing angle, or how a quarterback can shift defenses simply by moving his eyes. There’s currently a ferocious debate going on about how much you can push on a dude’s butt when he’s running the ball. It is a sport with breadth and depth.

I’m also a born fan. I’m not a gambler, thank god. But I’ll happily subsume myself into any sport, and cheer loudly for anything. The pace and action of football is perfect for sustaining my euphoria. Scream, cheer, dissect, eat snacks. Repeat. If anything, my appreciation of football only increased during the pandemic: it was the deeply immersive distraction that I needed to that counter-balance the rest of the world.

But, ultimately, when I acknowledge how I came to like football, it is because - like all other fandoms - it is a social activity. I came to football-in-the-UK in the same way, by (inadvertently) realising it was a way to connect with people. First shallowly, then meaningfully. On one end, it is a way of having genuinely enjoyable conversations with strangers, and on the other, it is a ‘destination’ event to share with my closest friends.

Like all fandoms, I can see how sports can be taken too far: into an overwhelming commitment, an all-consuming identity, or an in-group label that excludes all others.

In Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, Buford starts his journey with a thinly-veiled contempt for United fans. He quickly learns the power of sport as a connecting mechanism - for both good and ill. By the end, even faced with the full horror of football hooliganism, he is far more empathetic. He not only finds a love for the sport, but an empathy for the joy of being a sports fan. Being part of the group is a powerful, wonderful (and dangerous) feeling. In my case, a love of football has helped me through good times and bad ones, but, like all love (and all fandoms), it can turn into a darker form of obsession.

John Travolta, Donald Faison, Zach Braff Praise Super Bowl Commercial - Variety

The SuperBowl is also the annual highlight of the advertising calendar.

At $7m for thirty seconds, the very act of advertising during the SuperBowl is significant. It is where big brands go to make big statements. It is the SuperBowl of football, but also the SuperBowl of Extremely Expensive TV Advertisements.

As a long-time viewer and long-time advertiser, I’ve seen SuperBowl advertising trends come and go. Cars have always been a staple of SuperBowl advertising. The tech brands arrived, then the bubble burst; fast food comes and goes depending on the received marketing wisdom of the era… There was the all-crypto Superbowl of two years ago, which was a weird cultural anomaly that is worthy of a PhD thesis. Now that sports betting is legalised, they’re now dominating the ad breaks as well. SuperBowl ads show you not only who has money, but who wants you to know they have money. They’re conspicuous consumption.

This year’s SuperBowl was almost reassuringly, boringly normal. A wide range of advertisers - cars, beer, gambling, and fast foods, but also insurance, over the counter medicines, websites, streaming services, movies. A lot of industries are putting their heads over the parapet and investing in Big Advertising Moments. In a weirdly capitalist way, that’s kind of reassuring. Biden’s made SuperBowl ads basic again!

That said, the ads weren’t very good. Why is that?

An axiom of advertising is that the more specific you can make a message, the more persuasive it will be. If you’re speaking to a single person, you can really get under their skin: you can learn exactly what they want, and find precisely the right way to motivate them. The tighter the audience focus, the better the message will be. Most brands, however, need to balance that with scale. That’s also common sense: you want as many people buying your product as possible. Instead 100% success with 10 people, what if you can get 80% success with 20 - or 11% success with 100, or 1% success with 1,000? The central challenge of marketing is finding the right balance. A lot of the science of the discipline is there to answer the question: what’s the largest small audience you can find? 

The SuperBowl is at the furthest end of the spectrum. You have the largest possible audience: the single biggest moment on the single biggest channel. Congratulations, you have thirty seconds of attention from half the country. So what do you do say You’ve spend $7m on 115 million pairs of eyes. What message about your product is going to be engaging, compelling, or even relevant to all those viewers?

The obvious answer (to Madison Avenue) is … a celebrity. (And if you can work in a famous song? You’re an advertising superstar!) Celebrity advertising is a full-on sprint to the lowest common denominator. It generally has no relation to the brand, its values, or even its message. But if you’re in a panic with a $7m stage, it is the safest option. It commits fully to the task of making the advertisement relevant, without doing anything to help the message, product, or brand.

There’s a whole school of advertising thought around the importance of fame to building a brand. This is what results: hundreds of millions of dollars spent on thirst trap advertising; desperate to be seen, but with nothing to say. It scares me to see listicles praising the firehose of faded celebrity and arsenal of weaponised nostalgia as actually, in some way, ‘good’ advertising.

He gets us" Super Bowl Jesus commercial angers both left and right - BBC News

They’re funded by a shadowy cabal of grave-robbing extremists, who would rather spend billions of dollars appearing right than doing good.

That said: these are strong ads, possibly the only SuperBowl ads actually worthy of listicle presence. The campaign uses the context of the SuperBowl well: it wants to be seen and be famous. By being there, they prove this is a ‘thing’ and not a fringe movement. But the ads also have a deliberately lo-fi approach that fits the ‘brand’, they’re deceptively humble for a billion dollar campaign. They are muted and monochrome; disrupting the hyperkinetic decadence of the ad breaks to their advantage.

The campaign is also strategically robust. The campaign’s answer to ‘what unites 115 million people?’ isn’t John Travolta. The campaign is built around attitudes that unite that ‘largest small’ audience of ‘all Americans’. Insights about loneliness, a fear of social division, an exhaustion of omni-crisis, and the genuine inability to see what their future will hold. These are actual insights. They’re really not particularly challenging to uncover, but they’re also way beyond ‘Bree Larson shares her name with a cheese’. The resulting ads - although of dubious intent and unpleasant origin - are all the more powerful for it. The lavish frivolity of every other ad in the break only makes this campaign look and feel more relevant.

This is, admittedly, a bit of an apples and oranges situation, as nobody really wants to hear mayonnaise talk about social division. Probably a better comparison for ‘building the brand of a massive institution by positioning it as a) empathetic and b) a solution to sweeping social problems’, would be the promotional puffery that the NFL puts out. Those squidgy videos about about much they super-duper care about communities and/or ‘isn’t it nice that ladies play too?’.

But the greater point remains that there are insights - attitudes, behaviours, sentiments, concerns - that can unite large audiences, whether you’re selling Jesus or car insurance. And they’re not Alicia Silverstone.

For newcomers: I’m reading 30-odd award-winning romances and doing some spurious analyses of the values they reinforce. Why? ‘Cause!

Brenda Jackson’s Tonight and Forever (1995, Option): Jackson is a romance legend; the first Black romance author with a Harlequin deal, to make the New York Times and USA Today lists, and publish over a 100 books (and counting). She should be written about in thesis papers, not trashy newsletters. Her debut is, unsurprisingly, debut-y. It is the mature romance of Lorren (a recent divorcée, escaping an abusive relationship) and Justin (a widower). They’re both classy, sexy, pretty perfect people. She’s created an amazingly successful line of ethnically-diverse children’s books, he’s an acclaimed doctor (and infinitely wealthy?). They live in a small town in Texas where the upper and middle classes are Black, as well as the Mayor, town doctor, and police chief. Justin’s purchase of the sprawling local mansion is welcomed, and the TV deal to adapt Lorren’s books is on the way. It feels like a (rather appealing) alternate universe.

The barriers to Lorren and Justin’s relationships are entirely internal: she doesn’t really trust anyone, he still needs to put his past behind him. But it is, all in all, pretty smooth sailing. The whole thing feels wistful. This book presents a better world, filled with good people who get the good things they deserve. It is - like most books in the Romance category - escapist, but, in Tonight and Forever, it is less about the central couple than the whole fair, pleasant, and just context that they live in.

Values: I’ve called it for a World at Peace (again, both for the characters and their entire, extended universe). And they get there through Helpfulness: this is very much a book about how to act, and that is by being part of a community, and contributing to the creation of that world.

Tera Lynn Child’s Oh. My. Gods. (2008, RITA Winner): A YA(?) novel about a high school filled with the descendants of Greek gods?! A million times yes. I had actually sandbagged this one to read as a pick-me-up, but then...

The concept is obviously <chef’s kiss> but the actual execution just ain’t great. Phoebe is a 17-year-old that is written as an 11-year-old (insta-crush; shocked by swear words like (gasp) ‘hell’; pre-adolescent pranks on her wicked step-sister). The age threw me off - as a book for the middle grade market, it makes sense. But as a book ostensibly for the young adult market, and a “romance” (!?!) at that, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. Phoebe is also a one-note character. She’s a runner! This is reflected in her entire wardrobe, her life plan, the metaphors she uses, the way the thinks, her outside interests (none), and her relationship with her peers. Female main character’s with a key defining trait are one thing, female main characters with a sole defining trait are another. Even the book’s great ‘reveal’ is ultimately connected to Phoebe’s great love of running, leaving me the impression that Oh. My. Gods. originated in a single moment of wordplay.

Values: Of all the books, this is actually the least (so far) about love, in any form. The romance elements are tangential and uninteresting (and problematic if you think too hard about them). From a values perspective it is almost interesting book, as Phoebe, in her (pre-)teen angst, cycles through a lot of them. She is repeatedly forced to think about what’s most important in her life - friends, boyfriend, family, success, running, or more running. (Sadly, the book’s ‘climax’ takes everything entirely out of her hands, so we never really come to a meaningful answer to ‘what does Phoebe want?’). I’m calling it for ‘An Exciting Life’, as the story, at least, is mostly about having light-hearted, G-rated fun.

Annmarie Boyle’s Love Me Like a Love Song (2021, Vivian Winner): Apparently the Vivians are what the RITAs became after they imploded (for structural racism, not for dodgy winners, although I’m starting to have my doubts…), then the Vivians imploded? Anyway, the sole (?) winner of the Vivian for Best Debut is this contemporary set in the country music scene. After Grace’s husband died, she thought her career was over. And, now he’s got writer’s block, Andrew’s careers may never begin. The label puts them together as partners, and, hooray! sparks fly. Love Song is sweet, and does a few things that I really like: the power dynamic is very much reversed - Grace is the famous, well-connected, established one; Andrew is a hottie. Grace is also older (a 40+ protagonist!), but that’s just… normalised. Aside from a few amusing asides, she’s just, y’know, the searingly foxy FMC. (I absolutely pictured her as Connie Britton the entire time - blame Nashville.) And, best of all, the 70% break-up was well-handled, and sort of meta-embraced the inevitability of reconciliation. Values: This really celebrates creativity [Imagination] (in the face of all barriers), and also Self-Respect (two characters that learn to take pride in their work).

For Redditors, The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories is a pick for r/fantasy’s monthly book club. Join the crew in reading along.

Fun things to read:

Our cyberpunk world: as if actual influencers on social media weren’t toxic enough, young men are now idolising the (toxic) lifestyle espoused by characters from fiction. When do we get the Patrick Bateman dating sim?

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