Do the Super Bowl Ads Foretell a Dot-Com Bust?

If boom-and-bust cycles can have what T.S. Eliot called “objective correlatives”–that is, embodiment in perceptible things–then the Super Bowl dot-com advertisements may well be the objective correlative of the bust to come. (Click here to download and view several of them.) Culturebox has never before heard so much sourly deflationary commercial speech delivered in a single four-hour period. With a few charming exceptions–such as E*Trade’s three genuinely witty spots–the 17 Internet commercials out of the 30 aired during the game last night all fizzled by employing one of two equally offputting rhetorical strategies: 1) They tried to make the consumer feel bad about himself; or 2) they tried to get the consumer laughing with them, not at them–and failed. This consumer just felt like selling off her Internet stocks.

The booby prize in the bad-karma contest goes to Microsoft, with its paranoia-inducing airport-lounge spot, in which a business traveler dreams that he will be the last to board his flight because the stewardess is openly discriminating against “those passengers who run companies but still haven’t figured out an e-business strategy.” MicroStrategies (no relation, as far as Culturebox knows) also set its commercials in a claustrophobic airport terminal. In the first commercial of the two, an elegant cyberbabe glides by on a moving sidewalk while a schlub of a fatso struggles with his luggage and cell phone, getting voice message after voice message when he needs results now! In the second commercial, Microstrategies helps a sleek bespectacled global traveler protect himself against a nearly identical impostor. Guess which travelers use MicroStrategies!

The remarkable thing about the dot-com commercials, as opposed to those of their bricks-and-mortar competitors, was that the cutting-edge technologies employed the world’s most old-fashioned advertising method–provoking a sense of alienation and insecurity in the viewer. The soda, the car, and the beer manufacturers wanted you to perceive their brands as an integral part of a happy, upbeat lifestyle. The dot-com folks wanted to impress upon you that you are a Luddite and a fool for failing to use their products. This was doubly insulting, because they never succeeded in telling you what those products were. It was easy to see that the stylishly multiculti men and women in the Agillion commercial singing Queen’s “We Are the Champions” (“no time for losers”) felt smugly triumphant. But about what? What exactly had Agillion and its “communications strategies” done for them? Ditto for Qwest’s ads, filled with steamy cinematic allusions, terminally hip women, Jason Robards, and lots of rapidfire literary and cultural talk. But how does Qwest gain you access to original editions of Homer and obscure recordings of Bach, and why does that improve your bottom line? Even more obscure were, which seemed to have something to do with battling brides; Netpliance, which seemed to have something to do with the taped bridges of big black glasses; and, which sends you e-mails about something or other if you want it to.

Here’s something else Culturebox realized last night: If she never witnesses another ironic juxtaposition in a commercial again, her life will not be diminished. Enough with the cowboys who herd cats or take trips to Barbados! Enough with the high-end commercials that parody low-end commercials, such as e-stamp’s 1950s-style pitch for the lawnmower that shreds documents too! The vast majority of these spots reeked of bad faith, of people with unclear business models and too much of other people’s money and no concern about whether they’ll be out of business in the next few years. The worst commercial was the one for the aptly named, in which we were forced to listen to the aural details of one hipster’s bodily evacuations in a stylishly retro men’s room.  Yes, we know you think that you’re cool and your product (whatever it is) is shit, but must you tell us about it?

Here were the winners in the dot-com sweepstakes: Oxygen, the women’s channel, with a clever and sweet spot involving a female infant rejecting her pink hat and pink blanket and sparking a small anti-pink rebellion on the maternity ward. (A version of “I Am Woman” plays as a baby fist thrusts into the air.)  E*trade, with its parody of an ER team attempting to save a man “with money comin’ out the wazoo.” But such islands of wit were few and far between. Culturebox, who will confess to a certain indifference to football, never thought she’d see a Super Bowl in which the drama on the field would be so much more compelling than the anticlimax of the commercial breaks.