Twenty-six years ago, the introduction to the first edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. began with an exploration of the place that the Super Bowl holds in American life and culture, noting how "It's more than just a football game. It's an Event, a ritual, a national celebration, and show-time for . . . corporate high rollers, for whom the game is but a stage" for high-profile branding and marketing. Since I wrote those words, paying almost as much attention to the Super Bowl’s commercials as to the game itself has become a national pastime, with advance ad previews, real-time ad-popularity polls, and post-game ad rundowns, including straight-up semiotic analyses like Eric Deggans's NPR overview of some of the unintended messages from Super Bowl LII's advertising lineup. And so it is only appropriate, if not downright obligatory, for me to take a look at this year's crop of Super Bowl ads as I write this blog in the aftermath of the game.
In general, like many other commentators, I see a lot of companies playing it safe, trying to avoid controversy in an increasingly polarized America by adopting such tried-and-true formulae as featuring popular celebrities in comic narratives—with Bill Murray's star turn in Jeep's "Groundhog Day" spoof probably being the most successful in this regard. With such a lineup, there isn't much room for trenchant semiotic analysis, leaving one simply with deciding whether a given ad is funny or not, and then analyzing what makes it funny to see what that might tell us.
But one ad did stand out from the play-it-safe crowd this year, an ad that Deggans (in the afore-mentioned analysis) awarded his own personal "Oddest use of vaguely nationalistic language to sell beer" award." Yes, you've probably already guessed which one, if only from the title of this blog: Budweiser's "Typical American" spot. And since Deggans got to it first, I'll begin my analysis of this interesting outlier with a complete quotation of what he has to say about it:
The self-styled "king of beers" offers some championship-level pandering in this ad, which features a gritty-voiced announcer sarcastically noting how "typical Americans" are always showing off their strength—as images of a heroic firefighter in action play across the screen. The ad urges viewers to celebrate the nobility of "typical Americans." But I couldn't help wonder who the narrator was referencing when he said, "they call us 'typical Americans.' " Who exactly is "they?" And why is Budweiser developing brand loyalty by urging "typical Americans" to rise up against this unnamed source of insult? Vaguely nationalistic, condescending and solicitous all at once—hardly a regal combination.
Well, I think that Deggans is right on target, and he asks exactly the right questions: namely, "Who exactly is 'they,'" and "why is Budweiser developing brand loyalty by urging 'typical Americans' to rise up against this unnamed source of insult?" So, these are the questions that my own analysis will seek to answer.
It's important to begin here with an acknowledgment that the creators of “Typical Americans” clearly went to great lengths to avoid cultural controversy by packing their panoramic survey of "typical Americans" doing their noble thing with an inclusive range of performers. From its multi-racial casting to its inclusion of an actually disabled athlete, to its celebration of the 2019 Women’s World Cup champions, the ad tries very hard to appeal to all of America without privileging any particular group. This isn't to say that everyone was included, but a fairly wide tent is definitely intended.
Still, while trying to project inclusivity, "Typical Americans" does set up an "us vs. them" dynamic in its voice-over narrative, a monolog simply dripping with sarcastic allusions to what "they" say about "us," along with a lot of visual refutations of “their” opinions. So, indeed, as Deggans asks, who are "they," precisely?
We can answer this question by situating it within the history of what I will call "the trope of the 'ugly American.'" Going back at least as far as nineteenth-century British attitudes towards their former colonies (Dickens is especially scathing in this regard), and coming to full maturity in the post-World War II years when America emerged as a superpower, "the ugly American" trope evokes an America that is fundamentally gauche, impolite, raw, uncultured, and uncivilized. "Typical Americans" alludes to this history in order to unite Americans against those who just don't understand us, don't get it, and can't be expected to get it. In short, the rest of the world. Which leads us to Deggans's second question: why did Budweiser make such an appeal in order to sell beer?
Here we can consider Budweiser's lengthy history of populist advertising. When, for example, in the boom-boom, go-for-the-gold 1980s, appeals to high status and wealth in advertising were quite common (consider Michelob's "Have It All" campaign), Budweiser was telling its consumers that "this Bud's for you," while featuring images of working-class Americans at work, at play, and in bars. In the light of this history, then, we can see that "Typical Americans" is presenting a new riff on an old Budweiser theme, spinning a populist narrative with (as Deggans recognizes) a distinctly nationalistic topspin. In so doing, the ad is trying to unify Americans at a time of disunity, make them feel good about being Americans, and so (not at all coincidentally) feel good about buying America's most popular/populist beer.
But there's a catch, something that I believe the ad's creators did not anticipate. For populism these days—especially when combined with overt nationalism—is evocative of an all-too-evident us-vs.-them dynamic that is currently driving America’s electoral politics. And thus, especially in a presidential election year like this one, the ad's attempt to unify Americans is bound to backfire, dividing those viewers who identify with nationalistic populism from those who don’t. This will still sell a lot of beer, of course, but not, perhaps, in the spirit that “Typical Americans” intended.