They are as much a part of the Super Bowl as the game itself: the commercials. For this event it seems, the funnier the ad, the better the buzz. But did one Pepsi commercial misfire? Eric Deggans, media and social critic at the St. Petersburg Times gives his take on the ad, he calls sexist, racial and toxic.
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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Imagine this, your son or daughter is in college and the college, not the student government association or the Greek organizations, is holding something called sex week. When school is doing that and we will tell you why in just a few minutes.
But first, to the Super Bowl ads. For a lot of people, the ads are as big a part of the game as the game. And ads are sometimes controversial for pushing the boundaries of taste. There's an ad like that this year that's provoked a big debate online in at least the black blogosphere. We'll find out more about that and a couple of other ads that hit or missed.
We've called upon media critic Eric Deggans. He watched each and every aspect of the Super Bowl for the St. Petersburg Times and for his blog called The Feed. And he's with us now from office. Thanks so much for joining us.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Now, the ad that has at least a lot of African Americans in the media upset was a commercial for Pepsi Max. It features a black couple and the woman seems to be trying to keep the man on a low calorie diet, although this is not explained, by hitting him. She kicks him. She shoves his face into a pie. She shoves a bar of soap in his mouth. And in the final scene, a blond jogger happens by, and the man looks at her and the black woman reacts. And I'll just play a short clip because it's mainly a visual thing, but there it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
Unidentified Man: Honey, honey.
Unidentified Woman: Sorry. Sorry.
MARTIN: So, describe for people who don't understand why some people at least are offended by this, what's offensive about it?
DEGGANS: Yeah, well, the way I've described it is that I've sort of set the whole thing up. A couple at a park bench, guy looks at an attractive woman, woman throws a can at him, he ducks, the can hits her. But the couple is black and the woman who gets hit is white. And the black couple then look around furtively and kind of skulk off while the white woman is on the ground presumably with a concussion.
And there's all this sort of background noise that impacts a commercial like that. A commercial doesn't happen in a vacuum. It pushes social buttons. And one button I'm wondering if they were trying to push or unaware that they were pushing is this idea of black women being violent, black women being controlling and black women having a lot of resentment towards black men for being attracted to white women.
So, you watch that commercial and you say to yourself, what are they trying to say to me and how does this make me want to buy Pepsi?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Well, in your blog you talked about sexism, weird racial overtones and violence against women in one toxic package. And I will just say for people who didn't see the ad, I couldn't help but notice that the woman in question was dark skinned, which often is not the case in ads.
Now, we reached out to PepsiCo for comment and they actually sent us a statement and they say that this ad resulted from a contest which provides an opportunity for consumers to tell us what they love about Pepsi Max by showcasing their creativity through humorous and often exaggerated commercials.
They say this spot was selected to be a finalist for public voting. And then they say vetted the ad with our external ethnic advisory board, as well as nationally recognized community activists and leaders, all of whom believe the ad highlights the key product attributes in a humorous way. What do you say about that?
And I'll just also mention, Essence magazine, which is, I think, the premiere lifestyle magazine for African American women, is running a poll on their website. And the people who are voting, this is not scientific - are split right down the middle.
DEGGANS: Yeah, you know, I don't know who was on that panel. But anybody who knows anything about race who saw that ad had to know that there were some serious issues wrapped up in it. The thing that's interesting to me about it is that this ad aired on the most watched program in television history and I really haven't seen anybody talk about it outside of the black community in the way that we're talking about it.
MARTIN: Well, I also think it's worth noting that PepsiCo is one of the few corporations in this country which - whose chair is a woman of color. PepsiCo is chaired by a woman of South Asian descent and it is interesting to contemplate that even with that - what is perceived as a corporate advance, there is still this kind of media message disseminated.
But, Eric, we need to move on to another spot. And this one's titled, "Imported from Detroit." It's a two-minute Chrysler car commercial highlighting in a very blunt way, you know, both the rough edges and the fine lines of the city of Detroit. This is part of the spot - we can't play all of it - it's two minutes long, with actor's voiceover and it leads to a short appearance by a Detroit gospel choir and the rapper, Eminem, on the stage of the rather glorious Fox Theater. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
Woman: Now, we're from America, but this isn't New York City or the Windy City, nor Sin City. And we're certainly no one's Emerald City.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EMINEM: This is the Motor City and this is what we do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Eminem of course being a major star, hip-hop star from the Detroit area. So, your take - hit or miss?
DEGGANS: Very much a hit. What I liked about it was that, you know, you have the two teams in the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers and the Steelers, both from towns that have struggled in this economic recession because, you know, their backbone was industry, trying to come back and Detroit doing the same thing. And I think it's almost a metaphor for the theme that we saw in all the commercials.
We had more than a dozen automakers and car-related companies advertising in the Super Bowl paying top dollar to essentially say, after the recession, when nobody's buying cars, and everything seemed to be falling apart, we are back. General Motors is back, you know, America is back.
MARTIN: OK. Best ad of the game - your vote?
DEGGANS: Ooh, best ad of the game. There's a Volkswagen ad where a kid was dressed like Darth Vader and his dad fools him into thinking that he used the force to start his car when he used a little remote that the kid couldn't see. And that seemed to be the commercial that most people really responded to and liked.
MARTIN: That's true. That's true.
DEGGANS: You know, I myself, I kind of like the CareerBuilder ad where this guy was trying to pull into a parking lot and, you know, the monkeys from the CareerBuilder ad were messing up the parking lot like they messed up the office in the year before's commercials.
And the E*Trade babies, I still like them even though it's very creepy to see babies talking like that. But I still love it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Eric Deggans writes the blog called The Feed. He's a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. And we were able to reach him at his office. Eric, thank you.
DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.