Episode 84: That’s Not Sexy!

The Overthinkers tackle Super Bowl XLIV.

Matthew Wrather hosts with Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, Josh McNeil, and John Perich to overthink Super Bowl XLIV, especially its downtrodden, misogynistic commercials and its geriatric halftime show.

→ Download Episode 84 (MP3)

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11 Comments on “Episode 84: That’s Not Sexy!”

  1. sean from philly #

    one thing to keep in mind with super bowl commercials is that the NFL and the tv networks that broadcast it have put a lot of effort in catering to a pretty specific audience: middle class suburban man-children from middle America. so you get lots of fratty humor about boobs and chimpanzees in people clothes and lots of post-frat humor about hectoring wives and how uncool their lives are. also, i can see why lee kept associating this perspective with being white, because even though the ads had some token minority representation, the viewpoint is decidedly caucasian. there are no urban black people or really any asians or latinos, just the few minorities that made it to the ‘burbs and who are, thus, non-threatening and “acceptable.”

    this positioning is one of the main reasons that football has become the dominant sport in our society. the league has intentionally aligned itself with the right-middle of the political spectrum, which has dominated the cultural discourse in america for the last two decades. there is a very fox news vibe to football coverage, with lots of lurid violence, borderline-jingo patriotism and trumped-up outrage at the private indiscretions of the players (one coach was recently fined 5 figures for flipping off a man who spit on him at a wrestling match). in a way, it’s a savvy move. for the most part, the right is more likely than the left to stop watching if the content doesn’t jibe with their viewpoint (this is why there are conservatives on NPR but no liberals on Fox News), so you’re playing the safest bet by erring on the conservative side.

    what’s most interesting to me, though, is the lax definition of conservatism that the league and its advertisers promote. i have a hard time imagining old-time conservatives being so okay with all the frank sexual references, but they could easily nod along to the “America rules!” stuff, not to mention the homophobia and misogyny. the best example i can think of is the blue collar comedy tour, which was full of profanity and graphic sexual and scatological references, but still had an unquestionably conservative agenda. this strikes me as incredibly disingenuous, allowing them to appeal to the lowest common denominator without surrendering the moral high ground of supporting “Traditional American Values.”


  2. Chris #

    To paraphrase Simpsons writer George Meyer, if I could choose between getting rid of advertisements or nuclear weapons, I’d choose ads.


  3. neubauer #

    I’m amused that the $85 bill that goes along with the smart phone counts as “free” information at your fingertips.

    Also, wasn’t the joke in the pepsi commercial that Bob Dole was making fun of himself for doing viagra ads, or am I having a false memory?


  4. fenzel #

    @ sean

    I dunno, I live in Boston, and there are a lot of people here who like football and beer.

    I mean, I guess this is also “Middle America” in the sense of “Middle Class America,” rather than “the Red States,” but there are also a lot of lower class people here who like football and beer, as well as upper-class people who like football and beer. There are also a lot of women who like football and beer. At the party I was at, one of the women (an attorney, I believe, in her home team T-shirt) quoted a statistic that more women watch the Super Bowl than men. Don’t know if it’s true, but just the fact that it was said straight-faced says to me that you’re perhaps overcompartmentalizing the popular culture.

    Maybe this is the Scott Brown election talking here, but I think you ascribe “things the majority of Americans like” to “things the political majority of Americans like” too quickly.

    Most Democrats don’t listen to NPR. NPR is a niche audience thing. Most Democrats like football.


    You are correct. It wasn’t a non sequitur about erections. It was a reference to a different ad about Bob’s Dole.


  5. fenzel #


    Also, I kind of frown upon this idea that henpecked husband humor is “post-frat” when it is historically popular across all English-speaking social statuses, from the most elite of seventeenth century parlor comedies to the roughest street shows.

    And I really frown upon the idea that guys who watch football and raise families are “suburban man-children.”

    Think of it that way and you buy into the hype. They are portrayed as man-children. That’s the ad character. But they’re not really man-children. They’re men. And while that word carries a lot of resonance that perhaps it shouldn’t carry anymore, making it a term of humiliation is cutting off Vader’s head on Dagobah and seeing your own face.

    It’s not even a class issue. Whether it’s the janitor or the company president drinking beer and watching football, I see little to justify such contempt just because they like football, beer, sex and cars. All these things are pretty cool if you give them a chance. And if you work for a living and take care of your family, I don’t see how having some frivolous interests in your leisure time is such a horrible thing.

    Now, stupid commericals, yeah, we can frown on that. And the dumb portrayals and whatnot, and the awful and uninteresting attempt to “sell sex” without selling anything or being sexy — by just being bawdy and mean-spirited. We can frown on all that. But I don’t see a need to hate on the great mass audience so much.


  6. Victoria #

    I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to the entire podcast but I was wondering why you guys didn’t talk more about the fact that the Dodge Commercial seemed completely ripped from the script of Dexter. In fact I recognized the style of the writing before I put it together that the voice belonged to Michael C. Hall.

    There was just this real sense of desperation in it that I associate so strongly with the character of Dexter; he does all these things that he does not want to do, and he does them immensely well (barring perhaps season 4), playing the perfect husband and the perfect coworker only so that he has a cover under which he is truly able to unlock that which is decidedly inhuman in himself. It’s almost as if they want to link Dodge with the same primal urge that, in Dexter, manifests as blood lust. It’s an appeal to a higher sense of Manhood that also comes up in Fight Club – Civilization is lame, so let’s take turns inflicting pain on one another, OR drive a Dodge.


  7. Matthew Wrather #

    Yeah, I don’t buy the argument that the superbowl is a red-state, male, working class thing. Not to get all “Well, actually,” but it’s my understanding that the superbowl broadcast cuts across all demographics, which is the reason that the ads are so expensive.

    For example, this year, the ratings peaked at 48.5/70, with 114 million viewers. (read more)

    @neubauer Where the hell did you find an $85 smartphone? Steve charges us at least $200.


  8. lee OTI Staff #


    *Ahem.* Well, ACTUALLY: it’s spelled “Super Bowl,” not “superbowl.” I wrote about it on the site last year. Allow me to refresh your memory:



    Well, ACTUALLY: you can get a Blackberry, Palm Pixi, and other non-premium “smart phones” for less than $100 w/ 2 yr contract. But I think Neubauer is referring to the monthly service charge as opposed to the price of the phone.

    Damn. I just double-“Well ACTUALLY”‘d Wrather.


  9. sean from philly #

    hey, i didn’t mean to come off as condescending as that. it’s hard to talk about this stuff without using some charged words. but i do thing these issues are relevant to the topic.

    i am a devoted Eagles fan, and watch more than my fair share of NFL coverage, and i definitely feel that the content is not marketed towards my sensibility, and i bet a lot of people feel the same way. i didn’t mean to imply that football only appeals to “red state” folks, but rather that the game is more heavily marketed towards them, as evidenced by the tone and content of the broadcasts and ads. lots of different people like football, yet the ads still seem to come in two flavors: those whose appeal is pretty universal (like talking babies and the simpsons ad) and those targeted at fratty dudes. there were no ads aimed at women (and a few that most women would find pretty offensive), no ads aimed at minorities, and none directed toward, for lack of a better term, “blue state” folks. the game has a broad appeal, but the advertisers have a pretty particular target in mind.

    also, with regards to suburban men, you’re right that most of them don’t fit the “fratty dude” character portrayed on tv and in these ads. i’m going to be a suburban dad pretty soon, and i would never imply that that is anything less than a noble thing. still, though, it is a pretty popular and pervasive stereotype, and it makes you wonder why so much media depicting such negative images of men would be so successful.


  10. Gab #

    Crapus, I had this lovely, long-winded comment written out and it vanished. Did it get eaten?

    Let me try to remember it.

    Dodge: I actually thought that ad was one of my favorite of the day. I’ve wanted a new Charger since they first came out, so perhaps this made me predisposed to having positive feelings for it, though. I thought it was meant to be bitingly funny, in a dark, twisted sort of way- much like the show _Dexter_ itself. In this sense, it was kind of meta, but in the best way- even if a person didn’t recognize his voice, Michael C. Hall’s narration appeals to a kind of morbid sense of humor, or at least a morbid side or twist to one. But for a person that *did* recognize it, it was even funnier (if that humor is appealing to them, at least).

    Full disclosure to start with: I haven’t watched the show _Undercover Boss_, so anything I say will be based solely on the ads. I think it’s kind of a _Dirty Jobs_ post-recession and bale-out and the like, so a _Dirty Jobs: Redux_, if you will. As such, I don’t really think the company being featured really needs to be all that well known in order for the experience to be successful. See, the original show sort of points a finger at the audience by enlightening them/it about a job and worker they normally don’t even give the slightest consideration to, that they may not even realize exists. But it is softened by the host, Mike Rowe’s “everyman” sort of appearance. We experience the job vicariously through him and empathize with him as he reacts the way we imagine we ourselves would, so we remove our guilt through what comes down to a spiritual cleansing, of sorts, via this experience. But _Undercover Boss_ looks like it would take this experience and twist it around a bit. Here, the finger is being pointed at the exec going undercover, and instead of feeling vindicated by a vicarious experience, we instead feel satisfied by a tar-and-feathering of a person we’d consider a “bad guy” in the recent economy and culture. It’s a sort of sadistically pleasurable experience we’re supposed to get, since more people than ever nowadays think execs and CEOs and the like are the “enemy,” if you will. We, the general public, can snigger and guffaw at them and say, “Hah-hah, this is what you get for stepping on and taking advantage of us all the time!” and enjoy whatever discomfort (physical and emotional alike) the person “undercover” may experience. The exec-of-the-week acts as a stand-in for ALL execs, so the company they come from is irrelevant. They’re all the same, right?

    CBS aired this PSA about the high risk women have of heart attacks during the pre-game schtuff:


    “Especially if you watch football.” Hah. Cute. While this may not mean CBS acknowledges there may be *more* women than men watching the Super Bowl (depending on if your attorney friend is correct, Fenzel), it at least indicates CBS realizes men are not the only viewers. And I think having it during the pre-game stuff challenges gender norms more so than it would during the game itself, since people watching the game for the commercials are less likely to watch before kickoff- and the demographic traditionally considered less likely to watch the game at all, let alone pre-kickoff things, is women.

    But let’s face it, while perhaps individuals, i.e. the demographic listening to your podcast and taking the time to read this babble of mine, are likely to think the stereotype that women don’t watch football is hogwash, society as a whole still believes in that stereotype. Football is a sport, and, as such, a Man Thing, since sports are on the List of Man Things- hobbies, interests, habits, etc., that create and perpetuate gender norms. Society operates on (among other things) the premise that women doing Man Things is at kindest “weird,” so the commercials being aired during any football game, even one such as the Super Bowl, are geared toward men. (Even that great Google ad was from a man’s perspective- and that totally got at my most stereotypically “girly” sentimentalities.) Sincerely and seriously advertising to women would be giving them tacit “permission” to watch football in general, since it would be abetting their viewership by indulging their presence in the audience. And that would be bad.

    I also think former trends and social norms are why the advertisements aren’t aimed at just men, but a few specific demographics of men. White, middle-class, etc. People fitting those kinds of categories may or may not make up the majority of the people viewing, but the status quo operated in their favor for so long that they still speak and purchase with much more authority than other groups. Their opinion, being of the same modus operandi is considered more “valid.” As such, they still have control. It’s like South Africa.

    I just went there. I’m going to Hell.

    And when it comes to ads being insulting to their customers, I think this is done with the intention of a similar experience to when friends poke fun of each other with the best of intentions. If it’s done right, at least, the person won’t take it personal and just get a chuckle out of it. But the difference between a commercial that joshes you versus a friend is that a commercial plants the idea of the product or brand in your head if it succeeds in its job, while a friend will succeed in at least making you laugh a little at yourself, at most maybe alter something small (like fixing that terrible hairdo, for example). Either way, it seems like a form of satirical humor, even though its goal isn’t necessarily to point out the wrongs of, say, a political structure- it’s an introspective satire, pointing out flaws in the characters onscreen that the viewer can relate to; or if not relate in themselves, they see them in others and thus still appreciate the illumination. Or, it points out negative stereotypes we all think are absurd (like that beer ad with the guys at the book club). And I think this applies across the board, not just to seemingly anti-men ads (like those Glade ads with the gal that’s constantly lying to try to impress her friends).


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