The Truth About Super Bowl Ads: From Cheetahs to Arab Stereotypes to … Duct Tape!

Some people watch for the game. And others tune in for the ads. Indeed, Super Bowl commercials are a show unto themselves. This year’s batch, airing during the Sunday night broadcast but already available online, raise a number of questions that are in National Geographic’s areas of expertise. Here’s our take.

Product: Skechers GOrun2 shoes

Ad Description: A man comes from behind to stop a cheetah in hot pursuit of a gazelle. He tackles the cheetah and hog-ties the animal with its own tail. The ad ends with a fist-bump (hoof-bump?) between man and gazelle.

Question: Could a human outrun a cheetah?

Answer: Obviously not. But how far off are we? The fastest cheetah recorded, a cat named Sarah, ran 100 meters in 5.95 seconds. The reigning human record-holder for the 100-meter dash, Usain Bolt, ran that distance in 9.58 seconds. Sprinters will need more than new shoes to catch up with the fastest cat on earth. It’s taken Olympians over 100 years to shave about 3 seconds off the 100-meter record. If you want to see how fast a cheetah runs (in real time and in slow motion), check out this Nat Geo video.

-by Katia Andreassi

Product: Volkswagen Beetle

Ad Description: Dave’s carefree Jamaican-infused attitude and accent bewilder his coworkers—until they, too, take a ride in his new car and start talking the same way.

Question: What’s up with the Jamaican accent?

Explanation: The use of Jamaican English by a white character has spawned accusations of racism—but Jamaica’s government embraced the ad’s depiction of Jamaicans as a “hospitable” people. Jamaican English itself is a blend of several West African languages and British dialects of English, including a heavy dose of the Irish accent. And while some Jamaicans speak English with the well-known Jamaican accent, others tend toward Jamaican Creole, which blends English and the West African languages to the point that it becomes difficult for most speakers of English to understand. And how accurate was that accent in the ad? We asked University of Texas-Austin assistant professor Lars Hinrichs, who’s informally known as a “Germ-aican” due to his German heritage and study of  Jamaican English. Not bad, says Hinrichs, but it could use some work. “[Dave] says, ‘Sticky bun come soon!’ He should be saying, ‘Sticky bun soon come,’ ” says Hinrichs of a scene at a vending machine. “Jamaican” Dave does a good job using the so-called “trap” vowel—that “ah” sound that turns American “man” into Jamaican “mon”—and he turns “th” into “t” in the Jamaican way: “everything” Is “everyting” and “thousand” is “tousand.” But according to Hinrichs, Dave’s mention of his “bossman” at the end of the commercial is passé. That word is “no longer ‘cool,’ even though you hear it in reggae songs from the ’90s,” he says.

-by Sharon Jacobs

Product: Pepsi Next

Ad description: A teenager holding an unauthorized party is surprised by his parents, whom he tries to distract from the sight of a guest who’s been duct-taped to the ceiling (but comes loose and falls to the floor).

Question: Is duct tape really strong enough to hold a person to the ceiling?

Explanation: According to Scott Sommers, director of marketing for ShurTech  Brands—makers of the well-known “Duck Tape”—with enough rolls of tape, yes! It is technically feasible to stick someone to the ceiling. An experiment by the company found that a roll of duct tape can hold almost 800 pounds, which is equivalent to the weight of four adult males. In fact, for a 1995 story in National Geographic Magazine on how photographers get their images, natural history photographer Mark Moffett put the product to the test: In Panama for a story on the rain forest canopy, he duct-taped his feet to the platform of an observation tower so he could lean over and photograph his colleague at work. The strength of the tape comes from the layers of three main ingredients, including plastic for waterproofing purposes, a tough cloth mesh to make the material strong but easy to tear, and a rubber based product for the adhesive part. But Sommers warns that as tempting as it is to test the tape’s strength on humans, it is “absolutely not recommended.”

-by Linda Poon

Product: Coca Cola

Ad Description: Cowboys on horseback, a bus full of showgirls, and a motorcycle gang all race for a giant Coke bottle—leaving an Arab man and his camel in the dust.

Question: Is this portrayal of the Arab character an offensive stereotype?

Explanation: After revealing its ad to the public, Coke received complaints from groups including the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Muslim Institute for Interfaith Studies, whose president bashed the portrayal of Arabs as “backward and foolish camel jockeys.” Says Jack Shaheen, professor emeritus of communications at Southern Illinois University, “The difficulty here is that this stereotype is so embedded that even a respectable ad agency failed to see that this is damaging.” Shaheen analyzed onscreen Arab stereotypes in the book and documentary Reel Bad Arabs. Coke has since indicated that additional ads will develop the Arab character—though it’s mum on the details beyond that he’s a movie star and that the ad is an homage to great movies of the past. “The agency was advancing a stereotype without thinking,” notes Shaheen, who is pleased with the response from Coke, as are many in the Arab-American community.

-by Sharon Jacobs


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