If you watched the Super Bowl last night, you no doubt watched the commercials too.
So far, Bob Dylan’s endorsement of Chrysler has gotten the most attention for his weird, tautological question “Is there anything more American than America?” But that wasn’t the only ad with an overwhelmingly pro-America message during last night’s game. There were ads for other cars, for banks, for food, and of course, for Coca-Cola. Almost all of them drove home a patriotic theme, either overtly (the use of American flags, the words America and American, etc.) or subtly, through words like “freedom” and “opportunity” or images of purple mountains, spacious skies, and amber waves of grain.
With each ad, I felt increasingly ill-at-ease, like I was being brainwashed, and that advertisers were targeting me in what they presumed would be my most vulnerable state: while watching the Super Bowl. When better to sell us shit we don’t need (Maserati? Seriously?) than when we’re already amped up about sports? Buy this (very expensive Italian) car; it would be unAmerican not to. Because if we’re already amped up about sports, then we’re also amped up about being American. And that’s exactly what makes the whole business (because that’s really all it is) so damn unsettling.
I can’t lay claim to this idea. In the 1992 documentary about Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, the linguist-cum-political activist articulates precisely what makes competitive sports so creepy.
“Take sports,” Chomsky says, “another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about.”
He goes on:
“I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? They have nothing to do with me; why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any sense.”
But wait, he continues. It actually does make sense:
“It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. […] I think if you look closely at these things, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”
I’ve always disliked sports, especially football. I didn’t watch it growing up, never felt comfortable as a kid when everyone else was talking about it, and never had a favorite team or player. I never gave a rat’s ass, but I always felt alienated as a result. Now, I understand that it wasn’t just the aesthetics of the game I found repulsive — the loudness, the gaudy colors, the junk food — but the implications of fandom itself. Never has this been brought into sharper relief than during last night’s game.
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I always like to go on a game, it is really fun, it’s good to hear you like to watch sports now.
Wonderful article! Unfortunately, I expect to see a similar theme this week. Hopefully, more people can begin questioning the rationale of sports, America’s most consequential addiction.