In 2015, YouTube Super Bowl ads accumulated 133 million views, and many of these views came well in advance of the actually Super Bowl broadcast, offering advertisers a rich (pun intended) opportunity to attract online audiences. The Super Bowl is the largest advertising event of the year, with costs to air a 30 second ad in excess of $3 million. Clearly, planning, design, and execution of Super Bowl commercials requires meticulous persuasive rhetoric.
As Super Bowl audiences, we enjoy the commercials; they’ve become part of the bigger picture of the Super Bowl as a mega-media event alongside the halftime entertainment spectacle and the actual football competition. But the Super Bowl commercials also present us with an opportunity to unpack the methods by which we are made to feel a particular way about a product or service. And, when we step back from the content of a text like Super Bowl commercials, we become reflective. Reflexivity is a developable capacity—the ability to self-reflect is not separate from the process of coming to know and understand. When we recognize the persuasion infused within text structures like Super Bowl commercials, we become better readers of other texts and our world.
So, what language and visual analyses can we apply to Super Bowl commercials? How can we move from deciding what the Super Bowl commercial topics are to how their composers are crafting their arguments?
Persuasion, Messages, and Assumptions
It helps to understand what “persuasion” is in order to get started with Super Bowl commercial analysis. Persuasion is communication intended to induce belief or action. If they’re successful, text composers will capture and hold their audiences, and those audiences will be persuaded to think, to know their worlds, and to behave in particular ways based on persuasive appeal. The messages that are embedded within texts like Super Bowl commercials are part of an information exchange that contains a definite world view. Composers disseminate messages in ways that attempt to persuade their audiences to see the world in particular ways.
Those particular ways of seeing the world are sometimes called “assumptions.” Assumptions are ideas that are accepted to be true without having much accompanying evidence. Amateur and professional sports are constantly-evolving spaces, and Super Bowl commercials describe these sports spaces and the larger society in which we live through embedded assumptions.
A Four-Part Process to Analyze Super Bowl Commercials
So much happens during a Super Bowl commercial! A full story is told within 15 or 30 seconds. As the audience, we respond not only to fictionalized characters and conflicts but stylized images made possible through sophisticated digital editing techniques. Together, a series of elements create effects that cause us to respond in particular ways. Breaking these elements into parts and synthesizing them afterward can help us to show evidence of measured thought and to digest multiple possible interpretations of Super Bowl commercials as persuasive media texts.
Content and Context
Start by listing objects within the commercial and offering detailed descriptions of these objects. What do people say to each other in this commercial? How do individuals respond to and build upon others’ language choices? Note the most important conversational exchanges.
Consider the structural mechanisms that are used to draw the viewer into the text. For example, how are lighting, sound, music, voice overs, special effects, editing, color symbolism, and/ or casting used to foster audience interest? Is there any specific implied prior knowledge that would be important for a viewer to hold in order to understand the commercial? If so, name it. Describe the setting: time and place. Why did the composer choose these instead of other possible times and places?
Return to the list and descriptions of objects you created. Now isolate certain objects that seem to stand out as unusual, important, or curious. Explain what these isolated objects often represent in society. This type of representation is sometimes called “allusion.” Allusions use one object to remind us of a deep series of meanings through calling to mind popular culture, history, politics, literature, religion, or art.
Make a hypothesis for each isolated object: what might the composer of this commercial be trying to tell us about our own lives through this allusion?
Composer and Target Audience
Research who commissioned the text. Since Super Bowl commercials are so expensive, it’s likely that a corporation paid to have the commercial produced. What do we know about the corporation and its holdings? Who actually designed and produced the commercial? What is that company’s or individual’s reputation and experience within the world of advertising? For what other advertisements is the designer/ producer known?
Who is the target audience for this commercial? How do you know? What features of the commercial appeal to a particular age and demographic group? What are the possible economic consequences of this commercial’s success? How might it lead to new audiences adopting the corporation’s product or service?
What themes or lessons is this commercial telling us about our world and ways that we should behave? What evidence or reasons does the text composer supply to support the theme or lesson? How good are these reasons or evidence? Why do you trust or distrust the reasons and evidence?
How might different people interpret these themes or lessons differently? What are the possible consequences of such themes or lessons for different audiences?
Critical Thought through Analyzing Commercials
Breaking apart Super Bowl commercials like this takes methodical thought and effort. However, such textual analysis through both visual and language deconstruction moves us from being passive recipients of messages to active interpreters of media and society. Sound bites have less power when we can demonstrate why media messages reproduce certain cultural norms in our society.
Because we both consume and produce media texts, we can integrate the critical analysis techniques we learn through Super Bowl commercial analysis into our lived media experiences. Super Bowl commercial analysis opens us up to how advertising is played out between corporations and changing objectives of economic and cultural fields. The interplay between corporations and the media can become a bit more apparent when we recognize media’s changing forms and content and its impact on lifestyles, social norms, and belief systems that most people consider “normal.”
When we investigate the pleasure we derive from media consumption and learn how to question it, we achieve a duality of purpose that helps us to weigh the costs and benefits of media messages. Through our social media interactions, we can use media analysis to shift to our own greater community involvement and understand of media’s contributions to our collective culture.
Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2015 Grand Prize Award for Technology and Reading. She teaches English Language Arts at a New England public high school and is an adjunct faculty member at Rhode Island College. If you’d like information about workshops in digital and media literacy and learning, contact Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.