Animal Magnets

Super Bowl Ads Attract Viewers with Unnatural Nature

In essence, the cheetah (like the tiger in the Bud Light ad) has been transformed into a pet. Mischievous as the archetypal dog that makes off with its master's shoes, it has swiped the Mountain Dew. There's a kind of simple wish fulfillment here—if animals had a choice, they'd want consumer products, too. And perhaps they will forgive us for what our thirst will make us do.

Consumers, however, are not supposed to think about that. In the charmed world of the commercial, it doesn't matter that off-road bikers may be chewing up the same pristine landscapes the ad invokes, or even that cheetahs are faced with extinction.

"It's the opposite of deconstruction, it's reconstruction," says Barnett, now a senior partner at OgilvyOne. "You take actual ecology, nature, which is more and more impacted by the kinds of lives we lead, and create a wonderfully mythic world, a wonderful space where nothing bad happens."

And where's the harm? R.J. Hoage, chief of public affairs for the National Zoo, worries most when animals are falsely portrayed as dangerous in a way that perpetuates human animosity. (There's a spot about rattlesnakes surrounding a broken-down car that makes him cringe.) In fact, however, the fantasy world of animals only occasionally intersects with real life. There was a Chihuahua boom as the Taco Bell campaign took off, then a rash of abandonments when it turned out they weren't quite as cute as they were on TV.

Another overlap came just before kickoff, with a spot that showed two dolphins—married, middle-aged vacationers—asking a toll taker for directions to Discovery Cove, a theme park where humans can swim with sea creatures. Discovery Cove is owned by Anheuser-Busch, which also owns Sea World, which has been criticized for exploiting whales for entertainment.

"It's interesting that the same company that produces mawkish and phony pronature spectacles at the theme parks then turns around and makes fun of nature by humanizing and distorting it in commercials aimed at different demographics," says Susan Davis, author of Spectacular Nature, a critical study of Sea World. "But that's pop culture, eh?"

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