Super Bowl Psychology: What This Year’s Commercials Tell Us About Ourselves

Aging with J.Lo, Nostalgia with Mr. Peanut, Expiation with Beer, and Beyond!

Bryan J. / 2.3.20

Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of Super Bowl XIV. Congratulations to everyone who got up for work today after a fun football game. As the old adage goes, the real reason for the parties we attended last night was not the sport itself, though I really enjoyed a competitive game between two great teams that weren’t based in New England. The real reason was the commercials. Back in 2015, Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic wrote about how the Super Bowl commercials can reveal a lot about the American psyche. In that vein, I present the Mockingbird 2020 theological and psychological review of this year’s Super Bowl commercials:

We’re getting old

I mean, we’re always getting old, but this year’s Super Bowl really hit the nail on the head. J.Lo and Shakira both set out to prove they were still fierce, sexy, and with it during a halftime show that featured pole dancing, crotch shots, showgirl legs, and a visceral reminder that neither of their hips are prone to sharing falsehoods. This, despite the fact that the dynamic Latina duo are in their 40s and 50s. More than that, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (the undisputed greatest quarterback of all time who is flirting with retirement) trolled the world in an advertisement that “all good things must come to an end…” but it was just an advert for Hulu. Moreover, the Super Bowl party I attended fell silent, watching as Google helped an elderly man store memories of his late wife Loretta. Anxiety over aging is coming for Gen X and the Millennials now, and the big ad agencies know they can make a buck off of it.

Nostalgia reigns supreme

The Kool Aid man and Mr. Clean attend the funeral of Mr. Peanut. All the space franchises — Star Wars, Star Trek, Men in Black, Flash Gordon, Legos, Buzz Lightyear, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Bill S. Preston Esq. — pick up their groceries from Walmart. Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day purgatory isn’t so bad with the new Jeep. Top Gun II. Bryan Cranston shills Mountain Dew in Stephen King’s horror favorite The Shining. It was a good night to be a child of the 80s and 90s, even if it felt like that self-conscious moment when you first catch yourself humming along to the music playing over a grocery store’s PA system.

Perhaps the only “new” thing from the Super Bowl adverts this year was Lil Nas X dancing to “Old Town Road” in a wild west that just so happens to be populated with historic cowboy actor Sam Elliott. My working theory is that the proliferation of content brought about by the internet, the 80s and 90s were the last eras that could truly pull together a universally enjoyed media franchise. Our kiddos may not recognize all the characters, but if you want to sell your goods and services to the generations that have money, there’s a lot of bang for the advertising buck in bringing back childhood favorites. Things were much simpler back then.


The show was relatively low on social statements this year, but they were there. Beer companies are planting organic farmland for every six pack sold. Women kickers in the NFL could be a thing, and women are coaching in the Super Bowl, and we want to make space for women in space while we’re at it. Hummers are now electric and better for the environment. The NFL is #woke to issues facing black men in America. Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg both helped black women.

There’s a theological difference between atonement and expiation, two Bible words that have similar results from different processes. Atonement is to restore a relationship via sacrifice. Expiation is to restore a relationship by having the offense removed. Both are used to describe how Jesus’s death on the cross accomplishes the forgiveness of sin. Corporate brands will often work to distance themselves from the sins of the modern world, and have done that in Super Bowls past. Expiation is probably the better word for this practice, an attempt to distance one’s self from the rest of the world (and rest of the competition) through repentance and amendment of life. How can one atone for rampant sexism or racism or environmental destruction? That would be quite the tall order. But through a public stance against those social ills, perhaps these brands can achieve a form of expiation from the masses. It’s basically works-righteousness, costing a mere $5.6 million dollars for the ad buy. It’s an attempt, as it were, to drop a giant Snickers down into the earth hole.

Celebrities everywhere

Jason Momoa takes off his…everything? And what do Whoopi Goldberg, Kim Kardashian, Magic Johnson, and Dracula order at McDonald’s? How do the rich and famous “‘mus”? It seems like every celebrity somehow made it into a commercial, with adverts not only featuring one or two, but dozens of cameos. It was a veritable “who’s who” of who can sell things. Jonah Hill and Martin Scorsese sell Coke. John Krasinski, Chris Evans, and Rachel Dratch sell Hyundai’s “smaht pahk” feature in their native Bostonian accent. See all the notes above too — if there wasn’t a celebrity or two or three in the commercial, it stuck out (see the Porsche thief commercial or the Heinz ketchup advert). I’m also guessing that one of your favorite celebs made the cut, someone you could relate to and aspire to be like. 


How about that one life insurance company busting out The Four Loves commercial? Did every pastor watching the big game in America drop their pizza plate like I almost did? Fun story: I watched the Super Bowl with two priests, a deacon, and two postulants in the Antiochian Orthodox Church (i.e. they’re ethnically Syrian). One of them wryly commented, with a twinge of jealousy, “Gosh, I bet the Greeks [Orthodox friends] watching this are wetting their pants.”

Seriously though, a discussion of agape love during the Super Bowl? Paired with images of the elderly being sponge bathed, teens shaving their head in solidarity with their cancer stricken friend, and parents taking care of small children? I mean, did New York Life hire an evangelical advertisement agency on accident? Did some ad agency madman pick up a copy of The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis in a used book bin, read it, and think: “I can use this…”? I have questions, people!

In conclusion

If the Super Bowl is the last great community event holding America together and we put it on a shrink’s couch for psychological analysis, here’s what we have. While it’s true that we all likely had some sort of representation through the carousel of celebrities shilling us premium brands, it turns out we’re all afraid of getting older and dying. We’re grasping at straws to find some sort of common bond that holds us all together. We’d all love some way to atone for the wrongs we have done, and if we can’t fix the things in our world that are broken, we’ll probably just distance ourselves from them and wash our hands of responsibility. And maybe, just maybe, there’s the hope of agape, the hope of a love that will act on us when we cannot achieve it ourselves.

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One response to “Super Bowl Psychology: What This Year’s Commercials Tell Us About Ourselves”

  1. Trevor says:

    Bryan, I think you hit the nail on the head with this article. Never looked at this from a different lense. I turned 50 years old last year and I remember seeing JLo in concert when she was much younger and now to see her older and on the Super Bowl half time show now makes me think holy shit I am old. Nice perspective on the commercials too.

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