On Sunday, more than 110 million Americans watched the Super Bowl, some for the football but more than half, according to one survey, as much to watch the ads as the game. This year 36 corporations paid about $3.5 million for each 30 second ad that they hoped would drum up business on American advertisers’ biggest day. Total ad revenue is expected to reach $245 million, the highest ever. To entertain themselves during the game, Americans will spend an estimated $11 billion on snacks, game-related merchandise and apparel.
This orgy of commercialism provides a lens through which to examine the health of this country and the power of corporations to shape health behavior and health policy in ways that are good for business but bad for the well-being of the American people.
Previews of the ads shown in Sunday’s games reveal some common themes. One analyst noted that based on these ads, it is clear Americans are desperately seeking their inner child, love animals (especially dogs and chimps) and will buy anything if it is linked to sex. The Mad Men who created these ads have settled on appeals to the lowest common denominator, using their neuromarketing brain scans to decide that the precognitive parts of the brain are more susceptible to persuasion than the frontal lobes that might process real information about the product.
Who advertises on Super Bowl? A business newsletter found that six of eight top advertisers in the last 10 years are Anheuser-Busch, now part of the Belgian-Brazilian alcohol conglomerate InBev (spending $246.million on Super Bowl ads), PepsiCo ($209.7 million), General Motors ($135.2 million), Yum! Brands, a fast food corporation, ($67.8 million), Coca Cola ($61 million) and Ford ($36.3 million). Overall, advertisers have spent $2.5 billion on Super Bowl ads in the last 10 years ; the top four categories are autos, film, food — including snacks and fast food — and beverages, both alcohol and soda.
According to public health researchers, poor diet and physical inactivity were the cause of 365,000 deaths in the United States in 2000, alcohol consumption 85,000 deaths, motor vehicle crashes 43,000 and sexual behavior 20,000. A look at the Super Bowl ads shows they overwhelmingly encourage the behaviors and lifestyles that contribute to these deaths: eating too much food high in fat, sugar and salt; youth drinking and drinking as a way of asserting sexuality and adulthood; driving that emphasizes speed and macho rather than safety; and sex that emphasizes body parts rather than intimacy.
When the ads do mention health, it is often in ways designed to ensure irrelevancy. A Super Bowl ad promoting Doritos (8 gms fat, 200 mgs sodium and 140 calories for each 11 Flamas chips) ends with the tagline “Eat Responsibly”– somewhat like thinking that telling a person with major depression to “Have a nice day” is good therapy.
In a Coca Cola ad, a polar bear urges its companion to drink a bottle of Coke (65 gms of high fructose corn syrup and 57 mg of caffeine) to allay its fears about the Super Bowl. The closing message: “Coca Cola: Open Happiness.” Like some evil Mary Poppins, the polar bears encourage viewers to swallow with 15 spoonfuls of sugar the message that consuming products that contribute to obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health conditions is the road to happiness.
In 1976 and again in 2001, an increasingly pro-corporate US Supreme Court reversed its prior opinions and granted limited First Amendment protection to commercial speech, deciding that advertisements further the societal interest in the free flow of information to allow consumers to make more informed decisions. Viewers of Sunday’s Super Bowl ads would have a hard time finding much information about the products that were advertised. And while the health care industry may benefit from more cases of heart disease, auto accidents and alcohol-related liver disease, it’s tough to imagine the societal interest realized by promoting the chronic diseases and injuries that are overwhelming our health care system and burdening families.
To add insult to injury, corporations can deduct the full cost of the advertisements aired on the Super Bowl – and in all other media — as tax-deductible business expenses. Thus tax payers forego the tax revenue that would come were these expenses not deductible, then pay the heath care costs associated with the consumption these ads encourage.
In today’s economy, it seems churlish, even unpatriotic, to criticize the corporate celebration of consumption represented by Super Bowl ads. But in a country that spends more on health care than any other nation and with poorer results, isn’t it fair to ask whether patriotic businesses would choose to relentlessly promote products associated with premature death and needless suffering? And whether patriotic elected officials would allow food, tobacco, alcohol and auto corporations to become the dominant health educator for the nation, then expect tax payers to foot the bills for the consequences of their messages?