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February 15, 2018 Previous day Next day


Yes, it's that time of year again: time for Super Bowl Semiotics, advertising division. And as I contemplate this year's rather uninspiring, and uninspired, lineup, I find myself realizing that the ads were more significant for what they didn't say (or do) than for what they did—like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark in the night. Here's why.


To start with, one dog that didn't bark this time around was a real dog: that is, after a couple of high-profile puppy-themed ads in the recent past (Budweiser's "Puppy Love" ad from Super Bowl 48 was a hit, while GoDaddy's parody the following year was a disaster—you can find complete analyses of both in the 9th edition of Signs of Life), Madison Avenue decided to let this sleeping dog lie for once, along with the ever-popular cute animal theme overall. I expect to see it come back next year (or soon thereafter) however: cute animals are good salespeople in America.


Of course, there was a fair share of comedy in the lineup (yuks sell stuff too), and the consensus appears to be that the comic ads from Tide took the prize for Best Ads in a Sponsoring Role. The Tide ads, of course, borrowed a page from the Energizer company, whose Energizer Bunny ads—first aired in 1989—employ a sophisticated advertising strategy that is essentially self-reflexive, parodying existing campaigns for other products, and, in so doing, appealing to an audience that has been so super saturated with advertising gimmicks that it has become skeptical of advertising in general.


But the big story of Super Bowl 52 was the relative lack of politically themed ads. Given the way that social politics—from #oscarssowhite to #metoo—have been playing such a prominent role in America's popular cultural main events recently, this may appear to be a surprising omission, but not when we consider how the NFL has been witness to an entire season of political protests that have tied it up in the sort of controversies it is not well equipped to handle. And given the ruckus that an immigration-themed Super Bowl ad made last year, one can see why politics was not on the agenda.


Not taking the hint, however, the ad folks at Dodge thought that they could enter the political fray in a way that would make everyone happy . . . and fell flat on their face with their Martin Luther King, Jr. spot. Dr. King, as at least one critic of the ad has put it, wasn't talking about trucks. In fact, as some careful readers of the actual MLK speech that Dodge appropriated have noted, King was warning his audience precisely against the power of advertising. Um, maybe a little learning is a dangerous thing.


In my view, the ad folks at Dodge tripped up in yet another way during the night, though I don't think that anyone else has noticed this. I refer here to the Vikings-take-Minneapolis Ram truck spot, which took a group of actual Icelanders—dressed up as medieval Viking raiders—from Iceland to Minneapolis in a thoroughly juiced-up journey, all set to Queen's "We Will Rock You." Now, some Minnesota Viking fans have taken the ad as some sort of dig at the football team, but I think the real story parallels what I've been writing here about the Thor movies. All those ferocious blondes, cruisin' for a bruisin' . . . . I don't want to press the matter, but I don't think that this is really a good time to so aggressively display what can only be called a demonstration of raw "white power."


Perhaps the biggest story of all, however, is that no ad really made that much of an impact. Oh, there are (as always) lists of favorites to be found all over the Net, but nothing really broke through the ad clutter in any big way. At five million dollars for thirty seconds of exposure (the cost seems to go up by a tidy million every year), that's something of an anti-climax, but perhaps that's as it should be. After all, there is still a football game somewhere behind all this, and, as games go, it was quite a good game.



Credit: “2018 Super Bowl LII Minnesota Banner – Minneapolis” by Tony Webster on Flickr 1/27/18 via Creative Commons 2.0 license.


In a New York Times op-ed piece, Thomas B. Edsall asks “Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?” Intrigued by the question, I scrolled through the article, finding that writers on both the left and the right have linked Trump to postmodernism. For the left, Jeet Heer connects Trump’s appeals to nostalgia (“Make America Great Again”), his fragmented and fragmentary tweets, and his conflation of make believe and reality as “the perfect manifestation of postmodernism.” And on the right, David Ernst sees the rejection of truth and embrace of relativism as clear signs of postmodernism at work.  


While it’s impossible to imagine Trump reading about—or knowing anything about—postmodernist thought (impossible!!), the popular understanding of postmodernism as positing a rejection of objective truth and as agreeing that “anything goes” or “everything is relative” is widespread and featured in various bouts of culture wars in the last couple of decades.


Edsall notes that “scholars of contemporary philosophy argue that postmodernism does not dispute the existence of truth per se, but rather seeks to interrogate the sources and interests of those making assertions of truth.” Had Edsall consulted scholars of contemporary rhetoric and writing studies, he might have learned much the same. Kenneth Burke spoke (and wrote) out repeatedly against what he called “vulgar relativism,” all the while showing how humans together make or construct or build truths that can be accepted as “true,” but “true” without a capital T. Rhetorical theory offers doxa as a useful way to think about knowledge and opinion, presenting doxa as that knowledge that can be taken for granted, or that is widely agreed upon. For Aristotle, doxa was a useful early step in the path to knowledge, a place to begin constructing what can be assumed true through the process of argument and counterargument. As such, doxa is important to the working of a democratic society.


Later in his article, Edsall notes the work of Lyotard, who defines postmodern as “incredulity toward metanarratives’” rather than as an abandonment of any semblance of objectivity or truthfulness. He also refers to Andrew Cutrofello, a professor at Loyola University Chicago, who says that “In the present political climate truth and power have become uncoupled to a certain extent” so that it’s natural to wonder whether the notion of truth has been undermined. But Cutrofello suggests instead that rather than losing the category of objective truth, we are mired in “a battle over who has objective truth on their side.”


Which brings me back to the President and his seeming indifference to truth and to the norms that have guided writers and speakers for generations. As E. J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein, and Thomas Mann put it in One Nation after Trump, we’ve never had a president

who aroused such grave and widespread doubts about his commitment to the institutions of self-government, to the norms democracy requires to the legitimacy of opposition in a free republic, and to the need for basic knowledge about major policy questions and about how government works. 


Rhetoric, so often maligned as “just hot air,” is the discipline and art that helps us to understand how norms develop, whose ends they serve, and how they can be used in the pursuit of knowledge and action that come as close to truth as it’s possible to get. As a rhetorician, I took the lessons of postmodernism that made sense from a rhetorical perspective (that truths are constructed, that our understanding is often flawed and fragmentary, and that grand narratives and essentialism are dangerous roads to travel). But I did not give up attempts to build knowledge that aims at truthfulness, that tries to establish common ground on which people with opposing views can stand, and argue, and counterargue. 


While President Trump seems to understand, viscerally, how to say what he believes people want to hear, and while he employs some rhetorical techniques effectively, he does not do so in the pursuit of truthfulness. He does not use doxa to build toward such informed and agreed-upon knowledge. So perhaps rhetoricians would agree with Johanna Oksala, professor of social science and cultural studies at the Pratt Institute, who wrote in response to Edsall’s question, “I don’t think Trump should be called a postmodern president, but simply a liar.” For all his power, neither should he be called a rhetor or a rhetorician.


Credit: Pixabay Image 166853 by PDPics, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License