As football season winds down toward the Super Bowl, it’s time to consider soup. Specifically I mean the ads for Campbell’s Chunky, which is “the official soup sponsor” of the National Football League. Chunky has run ads for the last few years featuring NFL stars and their mothers. This season anyone who has watched a game has probably seen spots featuring the soup-shilling skills of either Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb or Rams QB Kurt Warner. And, of course, their “mothers.” There are a bunch of these spots, but I’m interested in two, which you can see, using Windows Media Player, by clicking on the photos below.
McNabb ad The McNabb ad:“There’s no fuzz on this Eagle,” McNabb tells the camera; a dishy cheerleader hangs on him, caressing one cheek. What we are seeing is meant to seem like an ad for shaving cream. The dishy cheerleader begins to speak (“Donovan shaves with—”) but is cut off when none other than McNabb’s mother bursts onto the scene and singsongs, “Chunky soup!” An absurd fellow who is the “director” of the “commercial” (and whose silly accent suggests that he’s European, perhaps Italian) shouts his exasperation at this interruption, and McNabb tries to coax mom from the scene. She responds with a chiding lecture on the benefits of Chunky soup as the “set” deteriorates into chaos, and the cheerleader recedes further and further into the background. Mom silences the director with a face-full of shaving cream and tells her son, “Eat your Chunky, baby.” McNabb acquiesces, and we close with the Chunky slogan, “It fills you up right.”
Deeper meaning? Reader Winston C. wrote to me several weeks ago about this spot, zeroing in on the way Mom extracts McNabb from the clutches of that little cheerleader and leaves him “passively eating his soup and murmuring assent to his mother’s ravings. Am I wrong to see this scenario as fairly dripping with psychopathology?” Even in the context of Chunky’s past spots turning on the jokey idea of big macho football types being secret mama’s boys, Winston C. found this one “especially disturbing.” This hadn’t occurred to me, but I can see the point. On the other hand, well, if these jokes work, it’s precisely because they flip reality on its head—Kurt Warner wouldn’t cry himself to sleep, as he does in another Chunky spot, etc. So if there is psychopathology here, this commercial is all about McNabb’s total freedom from such a thing. That’s why it’s funny. Or at least that’s my theory.
Warner ad The Warner ad: At the line of scrimmage, Kurt Warner gets the snap, and then—everything freezes, except Warner. A spooky voice says, “Kuuuurt.” He looks around. “Down here!” He looks at the football. On the ball is … his mother’s face. She speaks: “There’s a new Chunky soup!” Warner looks baffled; someone taps on his shoulder. He turns to find his mother’s head superimposed on the body of a humongous lineman. “Don’t fumble that bowl, baby!” she says. Then she makes a general pitch for this particular Chunky variety, chock-full of chicken and dumplings, etc. He/she/it stands with one massive arm around Warner’s shoulders as her tiny head pivots around. “Hey,” says another freakish amalgam, mom’s body with the giant lineman’s head on it, “your head’s on my shoulders.” It all looks like a Diane Arbus shoot gone badly awry. Then we fade to the interior of (I think) an airplane, where Warner has nodded off on his huge teammate’s shoulder. “Your head’s on my shoulder, man,” the guy says. “Dumplings,” Warner mumbles.
Deeper meaning? Now, this one I can’t really explain. Normally the Chunky ads catalog mama’s-boy behavior, as noted above—but I don’t know what that has to do with bizarre hallucinations and creepy imagery of a talking football or a yammering mom-giant. And why does the “real” Warner, sleeping on the airplane, seem to be having a lovely little dream about delicious soup, when in fact there’s freakish nightmare unfolding in his head? If this is the sort of scene that allows Warner a good night’s sleep, maybe he really is an extraterrestrial. Anyway, I’m scared to think too deeply about this ad’s message for fear that I’ll end up needing therapy.
Meanwhile, the good news for Campbell’s is that both its spokesmamasboys won their games this weekend and will march onward, chunkily, to play each other for the NFC championship. Their mamas, and their sponsors, should be proud.