We’re running out of football weekends, which means we’re running out of chances to determine in head-to-head televised competition whether gadget ads have finally passed car ads as the leading purveyors of systematic nonsense-for-profit. There are, of course, other contenders. From fast food, for instance, comes one chain’s insistence that elite athletes subsist on a diet of sandwiches stuffed with processed meat and bacon ranch melt. But gadget and car ads are the Brady and Manning of untruth-in-advertising. Let’s break down the matchup in advance of this weekend’s games.
■ Big lie
Car ads have shown great discipline for decades by sticking to the game plan. They almost all offer limited variations on the message that cars satisfy the craving for independence, speed, and self-expression — even though the feeling more commonly fostered by car ownership is that your life is ticking away and your internal organs are expanding dangerously while you sit in traffic, worrying about all the money you’re spending on gas and resolving to vote for whichever candidate falsely promises to lower it more.
Gadget ads have begun to catch up in recent years by advancing the claim that staring at a screen, oblivious to anything or anyone around you, will make you feel more warmly bonded to other human beings, nature, and your dog.
Edge to cars.
■ Bad advice about how to live
Car ads are showing their age in this phase of the game. They’re still using footage of professional drivers driving too fast on closed courses to urge you to express your individuality by driving too fast on open roads, but you’ve seen this move enough times that you’re ready for it.
Gadget ads, like the West Coast offense when it took the NFL by storm, are bursting with innovative schemes and tricky new looks. They’re assuring us that distraction equals education, connectivity equals connection, happiness consists of each member of a family staring at the screen of a different device, and a camping trip is an opportunity to watch TV on your phone. Each of these moves is especially difficult to defend against because the claim it pursues is so patently false that you can’t believe it’s not some kind of misdirection play.
Edge to gadgets.
■ Fake irony
Irony is not a strength of car ads. This car’s special “sport” gear makes you more sporty. This truck enhances your manly hugeness. This SUV offers a special rear-camera feature to prevent you from running over other people’s children while sheltering your own children from a world full of SUVs that are forever about to run them over.
Gadget ads have taken to wallowing in their own rising triumphalism, and one form this commonly takes is fake irony. One cable company winkingly-unwinkingly gives us headphone-wearing parents who can’t hear their children begging for more technology, and distracted screen-gazers unable to muster rudimentary compassion for others as they heedlessly inflict and endure terrible injuries. It’s not self-deprecating humor; rather, it’s more like an end-zone-bound showboat mocking pursuing defenders by waving bye-bye. Tech company wins; everybody else loses.
Edge to gadgets.
A few years ago one of my daughters, then about 7, started asking, “Are they still trying to sell that same truck?” whenever one of those ads came on with a pickup truck raising telegenic clouds of dust and hauling something vast while unshaven men stand by nodding significantly at one another. She would say, “Hasn’t somebody bought it yet?” Yes, they are still trying to sell us that truck, and they’re still promising that it will make you as huge as both the models impersonating regular guys in the ad and the chemically enhanced millionaires in the game that the ad is interrupting. They now also tell you that the truck doesn’t use that much gas, but that’s about it for new wrinkles.
No contest on momentum. Big edge to gadgets.
It looks bad for car ads, but don’t count them out just yet. They have started touting the gadgets built into a car as selling points, opening up all kinds of fresh possibilities for big lies, bad advice, and fake irony associated with distracted driving. They may yet find a way to mount a stirring comeback.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’