Super Bowl commercials far from distinguished

Before Super Bowl XLV fades too far in the rear-view mirror, a brief thought about advertising featured during the game — and how the mostly uninspired spots paralleled the worst, most cynical impulses of the news and entertainment establishments.

Even as more programming becomes pay-to-view, advertising remains the economic life’s blood of TV. So when the Madison Avenue creative types collectively strike out at what amounts to their annual prom — their ultimate playground, with a huge, near-captive audience — it says something about the state of sponsorship.

Far from Don Draper’s buccaneering style, what we got was the big and broad, loud and obvious — Pepsi cans launched into a guy’s crotch, cute (and not-so-cute) anthropomorphic animals, a sweaty Kim Kardashian and lots of patriotic pandering. Teasing sex and slapstick violence, wrapped in an American flag.

Other than the priceless Volkswagen “Star Wars”-themed spot and Coke’s commercials, the thought of such advertisers becoming more directly involved in programming decisions as they seek a hedge against DVR zapping is a chilling prospect. Then again, look at the god-awful made-for-TV movies Walmart has sponsored, which make “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” look like PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” In an ad-supported climate like that, it’s amazing that laudable TV shows ever get made.

In this respect, advertising becomes a spiritual cousin of TV news, which — even in the midst of the Egyptian uprising — can’t resist its basest tendencies, with relentless appeals to fear, augmented by an unquenchable fascination with the inconsequential.

Richard Flory, a professor of sociology at USC, recently wrote about “The New Politics of Fear,” which have “begun to dominate legislative bodies from the local to the national level.” Flory noted that reporters must “get past the obvious, ‘he said, she said’ storylines” to properly examine this worrisome dynamic in modern politics.

That sounds terrific, except for a small problem: TV news and the growing Web culture thrive on fear. Indeed, scare tactics are cheap, easy and require far less effort than nuanced analysis, which is considered a tougher sell.

Small wonder reporting and commentary about Egypt — particularly at Fox News Channel, which has elevated fear-mongering to an art form — quickly turned into hand-wringing over a possible replay of what happened in Iran, with Glenn Beck leading the charge into full-on panic mode. As the New York Times’ Frank Rich noted, few Americans possess enough context to grasp the forces at work in the Middle East — “the legacy of years of self-censored, superficial, provincial” U.S. news coverage.

In other words, politicians don’t push fear merely to motivate voters; rather, they know yelling “The sky is falling” dovetails beautifully with a media that relies on sounding alarms to drum up ratings — a vicious cycle, no matter which Chicken Little came first.

Like Super Bowl advertisers, the news media consistently retreat to their comfort zones.

In terms of crass demonstrations of the fear-based philosophy, the news release for last week’s sweeps-opening episode of “Inside Edition” — the syndicated newsmagazine most people have probably forgotten is still on the air — said it all: ” ‘Inside Edition’ Shows You How to Survive a Nuclear Attack.” Ratings-wise, think of it as going fishin’ with fission.

And it’s not just the bottom feeders. Egypt hasn’t garnered much primetime attention from broadcasters, but NBC will devote “Dateline” as well as “Today” to a multipart Janet Jackson interview beginning this week, while announcing plans for a special titled “Inside the Royal Wedding.” CBS’ “The Early Show,” meanwhile, touted its latest chat with “golden-voiced homeless man” Ted Williams as if he were Hosni Mubarak. And so it goes.

Back to the game. The few meritorious 30-second spots Sunday — the ones exhibiting real ingenuity — demonstrate what’s possible, but they proved few and far between. In tough times, it’s so much simpler to employ crotch shots, Kardashians and animals — the equivalent in news circles of “Watch or you might die!” local promos and dredging up Michael Jackson’s relatives.

Perhaps that’s why, with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, absorbing Sunday’s not-so-super ad blitz provoked a sense of fear and loathing. Only here, TV news plays to our fears, while those yearning for more from their media provide the loathing.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email brian.lowry@variety.com

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