How One Super Bowl Ad Did It All

Tide commercial, image by J E Theriot, flickr (CC BY 2.0)

There’s way too much to talk about this past week. The Nunes memo release, the State of the Union address and response, the Nassar testimonies, the Grammys, the Super Bowl, murders and accidents and ICE arrests of upstanding community members and so much more. I’m sure many of our heads are spinning. A poor blogger like me who sees genres and language everywhere can’t keep up.

So I’m going to narrow down — to one Super Bowl ad. It’s a Tide Ad.

What a fantastic display of genres in this ad! Moment after moment of playing around with the type of ad it might be. Is it a car ad, an ad for diamonds, a beer ad? Nope, it’s a Tide Ad. (I was so thrown off by the genre play that I heard the tagline the first time around as “It’s a Tie Dad.” To be fair, there were lots of men in ties.)

We start one with a car driving down a remote road, the sound of the engine purring, then a close-up on a well-dressed man driving that luxury car. He says in a low, manly voice, “Yeah, just your typical Super Bowl car ad. Right?”

Ah, it’s a car ad!

OR

We see the same man in a bar, with a bottle of beer sliding down the bar toward him and his laughing friends. “Or,” he says smilingly as the beer bottle slides by him and hits the ground, “a hilarious beer ad.”

Ah, it’s a beer ad!

OR

“Whatever ad this is,” he says as we see him dressed all in white in a clamshell with clouds all around him, moody and surreal, an ad for

“Whatever”

Leaning over a fence dressed in a cowboy hat and jacket, next to a grizzled old ranch hand, our spokesman drawls, “But, it’s a Tide ad.”

What?

Now he’s carrying a clipboard and wearing a short-sleeved yellow dress shirt and tie, with glasses, with a caption below “Get Insured” and an 800-phone number above unreadable fine print. But he says matter-of-factly, “It’s a Tide Ad.”

“What makes it a Tide ad?” the mechanic asks. “No stains. Look at those clean clothes. What else would this be an ad for?”

The ad continues through ads for diamonds (soft music, male hands draping a diamond necklace around an elegant woman’s neck); pop (beautiful people of multiple colors laughing together on a beach and holding a bottle of Fizz); mattresses (soft close-up on bed and woman’s soft voice saying “Fall into the sleep of . . .”); shaving cream or razor (man shaving in mirror); infomercial “medical” self-improvement products (before-and-after photos beside the words “Build Your Muscles. Order Now”); artificial intelligence home assistants (“Meet the new . . .” as the machine lights up)

Nope. Tide.

In the last scene, spokesman on couch with wife and children, basket of laundry in front of him. “So,” he says, “Does this make every Super Bowl ad a Tide ad? I think it does. Watch and see.” Ends with the tagline, “If it’s clean it’s got to be Tide.”

Tide is claiming all ads are Tide ads because everyone’s clothes are so clean. By the end, each fake commercial ends with the actors looking down at their clothes. We’re supposed to notice how clean they are. So some of the fun is also pulling the curtain away from commercials and something we may never have noticed before — the actors’ clothes are often so clean. So it must be a Tide ad.

What fantastic play with the types of ads AND with the ways we recognize ad types.

For me the great fun was the conventions they used to trigger our thinking of a certain kind of ad.

The car engine purring down a road at sunset — car ad. (The driver turning and talking to us suggests there might even be a Matthew McConaughey for Lincoln car ad genre.)

Friends laughing in a bar and focus on a beer bottle — probably a beer ad. Then the surprise, the bottle slides past them and crashes, everyone laughing — ah, a funny beer ad!

All the quick markers of the other genres — the particular music, the distinctive images, the layout, the camera work, the settings and costumes of the actors, the voice types and intonations, and sometimes the actual print on screen (phone numbers, “order now”). We recognize the type of ad immediately, if we’re from US culture or familiar with US ads.

We say in genre studies that genres are more than just sets of formal conventions, but here are examples to demonstrate that those formal conventions definitely matter in how we recognize a genre.

Of course, the context around those conventions is crucial. Each of these appeared on our TV screens at a break in the action of the football game. We already knew they were commercials. And we expect certain kinds of commercials, especially during the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the most interesting one is the “Whatever” commercial. The one with obviously significant images and important messages but you can’t tell what it’s advertising.

During yesterday’s ads, one ad showed a series of babies of many ethnicities, looking adorable one after another, with a female voice welcoming the babies into the world and assuring them that “we are all equal” even though some people might be threatened by them. Support for equal pay, loving who you want, going where you want, being heard and not dismissed. Ends with “Change starts now.” Good message. Then “Are you with us? T-Mobile.” Um, like we have to sign up with T-Mobile as our phone carrier in order to be part of positive change? Uh, hello?

Those are “Whatever” ads, now that the Tide Ad has given me a name for them. They’re advertising something, but it could be almost anything, as long as it’s very very serious and important. Advertising whatever.

​Super Bowl ads might be a special case, but I don’t think so. I have long used the “This is a Generic Brand Video” poem and video to illustrate how we can spot genres by forms and how genre conventions lead us to interpret in particular ways. Originally a poem published in McSweeneys, it was then made into a video, which is itself in some ways an ad for the company that produced it. I’ll link both here for your further enjoyment. You can immediately recognize the poem as a poem, can’t you, even without reading a word? Not only the layout, but where it’s published

But probably all genres have their particular conventions in particular contexts that trigger in us particular expectations. Ah, this is a car ad. Ah, this is a spam email. Ah, this is a horror movie. Ah, this is a cat video. Ah, this is a menu. Ah, this is a tax form. Ah, this is a to-do list. Ah, this is a grocery list. Ah, this is an academic paper. Ah, this is a news report.

We don’t even need to register the genre so consciously because it’s just there, in our memories, triggering our behavior, suggesting how we should act.

Of course, as the Tide Ad shows, people composing those genres can trick us, can use our conventional expectations for humorous purposes — or even to lead us to misinterpret. To get us to start watching a horror movie as if it were a comedy and be extra-startled. To click on a link that steals our password. To watch a Facebook video as if it records something that really happened. To read fake news as real news.

Or composers can confuse us, giving us no indication of the product advertised, or showing a car ad while asserting it’s an ad for laundry detergent. Even then, we know:

It’s a genre!

​Does this make every text a recognizable genre? I think it does. As the Tide Ad says, watch and see.

Originally published at www.amydevitt.com.

Writer, teacher, researcher, PhD, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use. www.amydevitt.com