I’m sure my friends and I weren’t the only ones who began to zone out by the third quarter of last weekend’s Super Bowl matchup. True to the NFL final’s reputation as a generally lopsided and boring affair, it quickly became clear that this year’s version would lack anything resembling a climax. As such, my posse’s enthusiasm quickly shifted to anticipating the shirtless antics the Red Hot Chili Peppers would scandalize national TV with during the halftime show. After the people in charge inexplicitly limited his Flea and company to one song, my mind – thoroughly uninspired by unfolding events – began to explore deeper questions of what this pseudo-sporting extravaganza meant for broader society.
Clearer than anything was the fact that although the event was an abject failure on the field, it was wildly successful in building on its reputation as a hyperbolic spectacle of American cultural norms. From commentators labeling it the “world championship” (curious, given that all of the NFL’s teams are based in the US) to the awarding of a luxury pickup truck to the game’s MVP, kitschy Americana runs through contemporary Super Bowls as freely as light beer. Although the modern-day NFL layers it on extra thick, this emphasis on patriotic fodder at sporting events is nothing new: as the authors of a 2011 ESPN article note, the Star Spangled Banner has been inextricably linked with professional baseball matches since the 1918 World Series.
Of course, such early 20th century spectacles coincided with military mobilization associated with the two world wars. Given the rapid territorial gains and comparative power of enemy forces in both conflicts, the menace that faced the US and its allies in Europe was palpable to the average citizen. The masses actively participated in the war effort, with tens of millions of men and women having served as soldiers, pilots, and support personnel overseas, and countless others domestically employed in industries directly related to the war effort. War was on people’s minds, was part of their everyday lives – as such, it’s unsurprising that it featured prominently in public events, including sporting matches.
Although war continues to be a part of the lives of many Americans, the scale of physical and emotional connection today is much more limited. In spite of this, the displays of military grandeur at the Super Bowl would probably convince a resurrected President Eisenhower that the Russians were at the gates. Amidst comprehensive military withdrawals from decade-old combat theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US military thought it prudent to arrange a multi-ship military helicopter flyover of MetLife Stadium to the tune of $100 million taxpayer dollars. It was a display that, in it’s pomposity, went far beyond the patriotic offerings Babe Ruth would have observed from the Wrigley Field dugout in the midst of the deadliest conflict the world had ever known.
This amounts to nothing less than government propaganda – an attempt to normalize the military-industrial complex in the minds of the 111 million viewers that made this year’s Super Bowl most-viewed telecast in American history. Although the air force flyover was a conspicuous display of geopolitical might on it’s own, it was the subtle meshing of this imagery with more “everyday” consumer messaging that made it insidious. While video screen transitions between images of waving flags and corporate advertisements is cheesy at worst, the prominent insertion of a military tribute into the middle of a halftime show featuring commercial teen pop idol Bruno Mars was more than just a strange juxtaposition. To a critical eye, it represents an emerging status quo in which military symbolism and commercial imagery interact regularly and seamlessly.
I think it’s safe to say that as long as US Army recruitment slogans exist alongside fast food logos, the former will become just as central to the American psyche as the latter. Consumer items and trends – from Barbie dolls to lawn mowers – have informed notions of what it means to be American throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Given the marketing prowess that goes into fostering such associations, they end up carrying profound consequences about how people view themselves within political community. Throughout history, boundaries of citizenship have been determined by the projection of military force, and recent commentary has pointed to the emergence of “consumer citizenship”. Is it far-fetched to presume that events such as the Super Bowl serve to incubate a hybrid of these forces of subject creation?
Citizenship that hinges dually on people’s identities as 1) consumers, and 2) nationals of a military power, is a scary prospect for democracy, sustainability, and international peace and cooperation. If such a citizenship already exists under the radar, the Super Bowl is one of the places that it rears its ugly head. With advertisers pay $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime, it’s doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon.