It was a dark and stormy afternoon, I was trapped inside a house watching the last football game of the season, and as this interminably painful watching experience lagged on, I began to look forward to the commercial breaks. 

I hoped the $5 million-plus price tag for every Super Bowl advertising time slot might produce something more entertaining than playbooks from either team’s offensive coordinator were creating. I hoped in vain.

The commercials were in sync with the game. But they did seem to indicate a distinct shift in the advertising paradigm. They used to use sex to sell everything from Plymouths to Aqua Velva. These days, Madison Avenue is using something else — virtue.

Even good games during a Super Bowl have a very short half-life in the popular culture pantry. Bad ones — like the game played Feb. 3 — will dissipate in our memory in record time, but the commercials that made their debuts during the game will live on. 

They will be replayed in full, re-edited and played again, and they will spawn similar ads with similar sentiments because, as a late great comedian of a bygone era once quipped, “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.”

If the Patriots’ defensive schemes were as blatantly obvious as the advertising message of the day, the Rams might be the ones planning the parade through downtown LA. And the message was loud and clear. 

In times past, advertisers told us that if you wore the right clothes or drove the right kind of car, you would drive off into the sunset a well-dressed, happy man with a beautiful blonde by your side. Today, advertisers are dictating a different message. Buying the right clothes or the right car or the right electronic device is the virtuous thing to do. 

But by what definition of virtue are we to rely on? No worries, Madison Avenue is more than happy to tell you. It is them. 

Granted, there were some fluffy and almost fun commercials where this hard sell was not present … but for every silly beer commercial playing against a backdrop of fantasy mashup of medieval archetypes, there was a beer commercial (same company) playing a Bob Dylan protest song of the 1960s as its virtuous anthem to push their wares. 

“Blowin’ in the Wind” selling beer? Dylan’s voice, which passed away somewhere around 1967, must be spinning in its grave.

Now virtue is a good thing. Jesus and the Church have been teaching it for 2,000 years. But the world has been resisting that kind of virtue for the same amount of time. Jesus’ “virtue signaling” was and is at odds with every culture that has or ever will be. 

Whether ancient Greece or modern America, the desire is to have God (and virtue) on our terms. Madison Avenue’s job is to make us all feel good about that choice which, if you saw only 10 percent of Super Bowl ads, they had accomplished.

It was almost as if the ads were saying: If you do not subscribe to these various definitions of virtue they don’t want you buying their car anyway. Variance from the party line leads to ridicule and exile — if you doubt that, check out a social media “discussion” thread on a social issue of your choice. 

I don’t think the Church consults Roger Goodell or the NFL regarding the schedule of readings for the Mass on Super Bowl Sunday, but it was interesting to listen to the Gospel on that same day and hear how Jesus, speaking the truth inside the confines of a synagogue, had to escape from an angry mob intent on throwing him over the side of a cliff.

It’s not rocket science. People just want God in their image … always have. The pagans played at religion but made sure they had a god for every one of their hobbies. Athena for desire, Bacchus for a good time, you get the idea. 

Super Bowl ads were doing the same thing. Problem is, if we are not careful, we play a part in this other game, making idols out of things and making idols even out of wanting to hold the “right” ideas about things, so as not be banished from polite society. 

If Jesus was willing to face a safety blitz when he declared he was the one the Scriptures predicted, the least we can do is try our best to follow his lead and not the world’s. 


Robert Brennan is a weekly columnist for Angelus online and in print. He has written for many Catholic publications, including National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He spent 25 years as a television writer, and is currently the Director of Communications for the Salvation Army California South Division.

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