What Do Super Bowl Commercial Controversies Say About Us?

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Every year when Super Bowl Sunday rolls around, you can count on a few things: roughly seven out of every ten people you talk to will have buffalo-wing breath, the likelihood of knowing someone with their face painted in team colors will spike dramatically, and one advertisement campaign or another will have provoked the collective ire and fascination of the room. Some people watch the game, some people watch the commercials, and we all watch the controversies swirling around the commercials. It makes sense: companies that have plopped down $3 million for 30 seconds of airtime want to smack you out of your nacho-induced stupor fast — so what better way than through something potentially divisive? And what tells us more about ourselves as a society than the things we find offensive? In that spirit, we’ve broken down the most controversial Super Bowl spots of the past few years to see what they say about American culture.

“Jesus Hates Obama,” 2011

This spot, from the conservative humor site Jesus Hates Obama, was rejected by Fox from this year’s Super Bowl line-up. It’s easy to see why this is controversial, particularly in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Mocking politicians is a time-honored American tradition, but invoking a jihad against them –like, for example, claiming that Jesus hates the president — is not only distasteful, it can potentially lead to real violence. That sort of over-the-top alarmist political finger-pointing? We’re sick of it. Plus, bobbleheads are so 2008.

PETA’s “Veggie Love,” 2009 and 2011 [NSFW]

In 2009, PETA’s “Veggie Love” commercial was banned from the air, but this year they’re trying again — with outtakes from the same commercial. Both of them are premised on the belief that, somehow, watching women in skimpy bikinis suggestively eating vegetables will convince you to give up wearing leather. We know that sex sells, but we’re not even sure what PETA is selling: a fetish video? Eggplants? Inundating us with these shock and awe videos might get you a lot of YouTube hits, but it doesn’t do much to give your cause credit.

Snickers’ “Mechanic Kiss,” 2007

Enough with tittering over dudes kissing, please. Unless you’re trying to appeal to a demographic of ten-year-olds — and even today’s tweens are pretty nonchalant about same-sex couples — this commercial just seems tasteless and dumb.

GM’s sad robot, 2007

This commercial had suicide prevention groups up in arms, and the spot’s ending was eventually altered to edit out the robot throwing himself off a bridge. But the message is disturbing on a couple levels. We’re a pretty work-obsessed society, so suggesting that a single mistake could have you not only lose your job but force you to suicide? That gives us anxiety dreams. Plus, we programmed the robot, right? Isn’t it our fault? So many questions! Where’s Wall-E when you need him?

Focus on the Family’s Tebow spot, 2010

After the media hullabaloo over the network letting Focus on the Family air the commercial — a move that seemed to fly in the face of the “no advocacy” rule — the commercial itself seems pretty toothless. But the principle remains: the Super Bowl is one day where Americans unite across social and political lines to get drunk and watch football and chuckle at bullfrog commercials. Dividing us along political lines seems unsportsmanlike, and we’re more interested in seeing Tebow actually play than understanding his moral stances.