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Superbowl 2021: Ads for Unity and Life Sow Tears and Fears

February 10, 2021


Growing up in rural Oklahoma, I remember that football was everywhere. From the pep rallies of the high school gym to the hometown parades, you couldn’t escape it. I happened to be the odd man out. I had zero interest in playing, or attending games. As a budding photographer and filmmaker, I’d spend 90 percent of my high school days hiding in the darkroom. Among my chemicals and developing film, I found comfort. Outside of that room, though, the world still revolved around football. That experience led me to developing a course disdain for all things sport, and I carried that into by adult life.

It wasn’t until I discovered cycling, and the health benefits associated with it, that I found a new respect for sport. I started watching cycling races with my friends, and found the camaraderie and community that televised sports created. I still wouldn’t say that I’m a football fan, but I appreciate it for the happiness and joy it brings to my friends. After all, Cardinal George once said, “The reason why it is important to love the culture is because it is in us. If you hate your culture, you hate yourself. Self-hatred is not an evangelical virtue.” Bishop Barron has echoed this sentiment.

Armed with the words of the cardinal in my heart, I found myself in front of the big screen on Sunday watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers battle the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Being a filmmaker, my attention immediately turned to the commercial breaks. I studied commercial creation during my film school years, and have always had a soft spot for their artistry. The Super Bowl is where we go to see the best-of-the-best that television advertisement has to offer. Though the game may have lacked some spark, this Sunday did not disappoint in the commercial department. Furthermore, there were distinct theological overtones running through the marketing messages. I’m going to talk about two of these pieces.

The first ad that stopped me in my tracks was from Toyota. It features thirteen-time Paralympic gold-medalist Jessica Long as she swims through a surreal telling of her life’s story. We see her mother receiving the call that she’s available for adoption, but will have to have her legs amputated: “Her life—it won’t be easy.” To which her mother replies, “It might not be easy, but it will be amazing.” At that moment, Jessica finishes her lap across the pool (the span of her life) and grabs the edge to look up at the vision of her mother. Jessica smiles brighter than the sun, knowing that because of a mother’s love, she was given this beautiful life. Through tears, I realized I had just witnessed one of the most pro-life pieces of filmmaking I’d ever seen on mainstream television. Ever. I don’t know if the executives at Toyota knew the implications of this ad, but it is plain as day to me. We are all made in the image and likeness of God, each and every one of us, and as their tagline says, “We believe there is hope and strength in all of us.” From the opening frame of Jessica floating alone in the open sea, almost like a child in the womb, I was touched by this.

The second piece I’d like to focus on is also from a carmaker, Jeep. In the advertisement, which Adweek called “the most divisive” of the game, rock and roll legend Bruce Springsteen journeys to the heart of America to promote unity. Full disclosure: I actually missed the game-time airing because I may have gone for a pint or some snacks, but I became aware of it via a text from a friend. We both were impressed with the message of the piece, and we were especially keen on the grace and artistry of the filmmaking.

The film opens with images of the snow-swept Kansas plain, and we hear Bruce’s voiceover explain,”There’s a chapel in Kansas, standing on the exact center of the lower forty-eight. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come meet here, in the middle.” As the ad progresses, we are taken on a trip through rural America. Diners, grain silos, steel bridges, and American flags all come into view, as Bruce urges us to put aside our differences and heal. We’re told of the responsibilities of our freedom, and how fear is a hindrance to that. Bruce walks reverently into the US Center Chapel, and sits in a pew, praying. After a pause, he lights a candle and says, “Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope on the road . . . up ahead.” I’m reminded of what Christ says in John: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.” He continues, “Where I am going you know the way” (John 14:1, 4).

In the days following the Super Bowl, this ad has received quite a bit of negative feedback from the mainstream press on all sides of the political spectrum. The New Yorker exclaimed, “Springsteen circles the Center Chapel—adorned with a cross, it’s not quite ideologically neutral territory.” They go on to say, “The commercial’s message is reconciliation: consider forgiveness, Springsteen implores.” The commentator further explains that this message of unity, which is coming from an “Everyman savior” in the midst of a pandemic, may not be welcomed in light of the Capitol riot. The Washington Post had even harsher words for the Boss: “Suggesting that we should all swiftly and metaphorically travel to the nucleus of White, rural America to make up and move along feels insulting and wrong.” The bad reviews are all over the internet.

As Catholics, we can’t be surprised when the mainstream media are against a message of unity and healing. It is much easier to keep people arguing, pointing out our differences, and creating drama around those differences. That is what sells and generates clicks. I discussed the Jeep piece with a filmmaker friend of mine, a devout Christian, who explained that he didn’t like the piece because it seemed to promote Christian Nationalism. That is something I am certainly against, and I didn’t see it as the intent of Jeep or Bruce Springsteen. What I saw was a piece of America that I once knew, reflecting my own life growing up in the country; the lighting of a candle of hope; and the wishing of our fellow countrymen the best.

We are living in a time where relativism is king, a time where anything goes. Day after day, our television feeds us opinions and lifestyle choices that go against the grain of our moral character. This Jeep ad shines a spotlight on a way of life that doesn’t get much airtime today. It is about the everyday folks that are living their lives and trying to make amends for the wrongs they’ve done. That is how we heal; that is the freedom Bruce talks about; that is how we find unity with our brothers and sisters. In our efforts to be diverse, and to promote diversity in the media, I think seeing the cross every now and then might be just what is needed . . . even if it is from a car ad.