The Semiotic Soup of Super Bowl Advertising

Julie Zigoris
Feb 7 · 3 min read
Photo by Taylor Kiser on Unsplash

As the big game becomes more boring, many viewers tune in to the Super Bowl for the commercials alone. Yet what, exactly, are we watching? The most expensive ad slots on television are becoming harder and harder to decipher.

Many of the commercials during the 2019 Super Bowl were hawking multiple brands: T-Mobile spots offered Taco Bell or Lyft promotions; Game of Thrones ads morphed into Budweiser commercials. Stella Artois was advertised not by one celebrity, but by two of very different orders: the slouchy Jeff Bridges of Big Lebowski and the well-coiffed Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex in the City.

Why do we need to be sold two different items at the same time, or have two such different personas trying to sell us the same item? It’s downright dizzying. An advertisement for avocados from Mexico still has me scratching my head, trying to understand what guacamole has to do with dog shows — especially when some of the dog contestants end up being humans.

Some commercials made it difficult to tell what was even being sold. A Turkish Airlines ad — I think? — doubled as a cryptic Ridley Scott film. It was supposed to inspire you to go online to watch more. But when an ad is so confusing to start, it leaves little desire for follow-through. And while watching Andy Warhol dip his burger in ketchup is certainly cool, it doesn’t seem like an effective way to sell Burger King.

Then there was the anachronistic mish-mash of a Budweiser commercial opening with a horse-drawn wagon — a là the American frontier — and ending with the spiraling blades of a wind farm, all to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So we’ve gone from horses to high tech, from manifest destiny’s legacy of defiling the landscape to saving it with environmental innovation? Can being “brewed with wind power for a better tomorrow” erase the mistakes of yesterday? Something does not compute; the wires are crossed.

Semiotics is the study of signs and how they create meaning. Fashion is a sign system — you don’t wear high heels with a tracksuit, is the idea — and so is medical diagnosis and traffic lights and language itself. Sign systems operate successfully because we agree on the meaning. We know that a red hexagon means STOP, and we know that the letters s-t-o-p put together constitute a word that means an action.

The overabundance of signifiers in the Super Bowl ads makes it difficult to tell what is being sold, and why. For advertisers, muddling meaning is bad business practice. If someone doesn’t understand why you’re selling something — let alone what you’re selling in the first place — they’re not going to buy it. Perhaps this is why the semiotic soup of Super Bowl advertising is so perplexing. Does this mish-mash represent our society, where everything is tossed into a high-powered blender and pulverized at top speed?

Perhaps something even more troubling than ineffective marketing is afoot. As advertisements become more integrated into our everyday lives, we have more difficulty telling the difference between marketing and information. Just think of that oh-so-helpful Facebook ad that seems to pop up right when you need it, a link to a local plumber after you posted about your broken sink. What seems like a helping hand is really just opportunistic.

As the boundaries around advertisements become blurred, our reality — and the truth versus fiction we are all struggling to define — becomes yet another casualty of our fake news era. Perhaps that’s what made the Washington Post’s Super Bowl commercial stand out like a beacon: not just because it advertised knowledge in a sea of opacity, but because I could actually understand what it was trying to sell.

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