Guest Post: Robert Arjet Takes On the Audi Super Bowl XLVII Prom Commercial
I’m thrilled to bring you my very first guest post on this site, written by my very, very clever friend Robert Arjet. When he hinted at this take on a Super Bowl commercial on social media, I invited him to write the post below!
by Robert Arjet
I’m a big fan of the Super Bowl commercials. That means that every year, after the game, I get involved in discussions about the best and the worst and (sadly) the most offensive. This year I was participating in a Facebook comment thread that was pointing out the gender issues of Audi’s Super Bowl XLVII ad, and someone else said one of the things that just gets right under my skin during conversations like this. They said: “You’re thinking about it waaaay too much.”
That response drives me crazy, because I actually got my PhD on the very premise that thinking about culture, talking about culture, arguing about culture–including pop culture and commercial culture like car ads–is one of the most important things we can do if we want to change the world we live in. In fact, when I was writing my dissertation, my advisor said something so simple that I’ve never forgotten it: “The field of Cultural Studies is based on the idea that representations have consequence.”
Yes. Representations have consequence. The millions of stories that we tell every day–and how we interpret them, consciously or not– are literally what culture is made of. And we do interpret them, all of us, all the time. Whether we think about it or not, the point of a story is to “make meaning,” or rather, to induce us to take the content of the story and make meaning out of it. That’s what stories do, that’s how they work, that’s why we tell them.
Audi and the other Super Bowl advertisers would not have paid $4 million for those commercials if they did not believe that people would interpret them and make meaning out of them. Believe me, there are few people who think harder about what stories mean than advertising writers. Audi believes (and they probably have a some very expensive demographic studies to back them up) that their target market will interpret that story and make meaning out of it in certain ways that will be beneficial to Audi’s bottom line.
“It’s just a joke,” “It’s just a movie,” or “It’s just an ad” makes the argument that these stories are trivial, and need not be discussed seriously. Yet companies like Audi pay millions and millions of dollars to tell these stories to us–precisely because they do matter, precisely because they do shape the way we feel, think, believe and treat each other.
I could go on at length about what’s wrong with that ad, but that’s a different post. Whether you believe that the gender roles portrayed in that particular story–that very tightly written, beautifully shot, lavishly produced, sixty-thousand-dollar-per-second story–what’s not really up for debate is that representations have consequence.
Audi bet $4 million that their representation would have a consequence of people buying more Audis. But the way they hope to achieve it is by making people feel certain ways about Audis. Is anyone going to see that ad, consciously say to themselves, “Wow, an Audi sure would make me a braver, more masculine guy!” and run down to the Audi showroom? Of course not. But that’s not how advertising works. That’s not how culture works.
In that same social media discussion, the wonderful Julie Gillis made the comment that “These things are what layer after layer help build the baklava of sexism,” and that’s really a great way to think about it. Cultural attitudes about sex, about gender, about money, about beauty, are all built layer upon layer out of millions of bits of information, many–if not most–of them contained in the stories that we consume every day. How we integrate the messages of these stories (and we do) into our own beliefs depends a great deal on whether or not we are willing to think about them.
So the whole point of the ad is to lay down another tiny layer of the “baklava of culture,” a layer in which Audi’s are connected to certain notions of masculinity, empowerment, risk-taking, bravery, etc. This is not “reading too much” into the advertisement. This is how advertising works, and there is very good science confirming that.
Audi did not spend the millions of dollars it cost to produce and run that ad on a whim. They did not do it because they just happened to feel like telling a story. It was a business decision with one very clear intention: to ever-so-slightly affect the way people think and feel about their product. They told that story precisely because they believe that representation has consequence.
Audi has every reason to believe that their ad will have at least $4 million dollars’ worth of the kind of consequences they were after. But what about the other consequences? What’s the cultural “collateral damage” of that particular story? What other elements were mixed into that layer of the baklava of culture when it was laid down? These are the questions that people are asking when they want to discuss the messages in advertising, in video games, in movies and on TV. This is why they are not trivial, never “just an ad.”
Representation has consequence, and understanding those consequences, thinking about them, arguing about them, is absolutely vital for the health of our culture, especially if we want to change it. Bertolt Brecht said “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” and Audi obviously agrees. The question is, while they were busy shaping a reality in which they sell more cars, what else went into the mix? What other elements are in that layer of that cultural baklava they just created? Your answer may not be the same as mine, but it’s far from a trivial question.
Robert Arjet wears many hats, but most of them involve writing in some way. In addition to deconstructing Super Bowl ads, he offers screenplay consultation at scriptteacher.arjet.net