This year, Super Bowl ads went to the dogs, like much of the rest of the country

Most media critics are calling the Super Bowl ads tame and sweet compared to past years, then declare unofficial commercial winners based on how much online activity each ad drew.

Virtually ignored is a trend that has been building gradually but inexorably over the past few decades. The trend has encompassed all of public life—from movies to ads to discretionary purchases. And in this year’s Super Bowl we may have seen it reach a new peak.

I’m talking about the current emphasis in our culture on dogs. It seems nowadays that every other ad has a dog in it, and it wasn’t always the case.

Thirty years ago very few ads featured dogs, but our canine friends play an important role in at least five 2014 Super Bowl and a major role in two others.

First the five which feature dogs, but are not about dogs:

  • Doritos has an ad in which a boy around 8 or 9 rides a very large dog as if it were a horse to the sound of the “William Tell Overture,” AKA the Lone Ranger’s theme.  At one point, the dog rears back like Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse.
  • In the controversial interracial Cheerios spot, the daughter—again around 8 or 9—refuses to agree to have a baby brother unless they also get a puppy.
  • A dog sits atop the carriage being pulled by the Clydesdales in the Budweiser commercial about welcoming home a soldier from an unstated war.
  • Most prominent among the many “Peanuts” characters in the MetLife spot is Snoopy.
  • Toyota has a bunch of Muppets driving and riding in its cars, including Rowlf, the Muppet that is supposed to be a dog.

The two Super Bowl advertisements focused primarily on dogs belong in a Victor Hugo novel because together they represent the terrifying and the sentimental, much like a Hugo novel does.

The terrifying comes from an Audi commercial based on the conceit of a Doberman pincer mating with a Chihuahua, creating a monstrosity that has a huge Doberman head on a small Chihuahua body, kind of like placing Sarah Jessica’s head on a pooch body in Mars Attacks! This ugly freak of a dog rages for most of the rest of the spot, causing all kinds of havoc and damage. Horror movies always walk the line between evoking reactions of camp or terror. We are conditioned to look at evocations of terror in commercials only with an ironic, comic eye, but in the right context—large screen, lights off, surrounded by others—the horrible abomination of the Doberman head grafted onto a Chihuahua body would likely frighten.

As hideously off-putting as this commercial is, so is the overly sentimental Budweiser spot in which a puppy and a Clydesdale form a bond of friendship or love that is so strong that the dog escapes his home and the horse with Clydesdale pals rescues it. The two are reunited and happy at the end in a moment as maudlin as only cheaply manufactured anthropomorphic sentiment can be.

The companies advertising in the Super Bowl and their advertising agencies are not making the dog trend—they are just riding on what has become a long-lasting wave.

Just short of 57% of all U.S. household now own dogs (far more than the 45% owning cats). There are 83.3 million dogs owned in all in the country and owners spend an average of $1,650 a year on each. We have seen a proliferation of luxury and designer products for dogs. Advertisements exhort us to buy Christmas presents for dogs. There is even a satellite TV station for dogs to watch—not their owners, but the dogs themselves! A survey a few years back found that a large number of women prefer their dog to their husband.

One can only speculate as to why the past 20-30 years has seen such a large growth not just in dog ownership and products for dogs, but also in the prominence of dogs in the mass media, especially commercials.  To be sure, there has been a great resurgence of the ideal of the American family, even as that ideal has fragmented into dozens of different versions in the real world.  A dog is a key icon in the American dream, right next to the house in the suburbs and the two cars.

There has also been an increase in single households. Pets in general and dogs in particular can serve the place of children, spouses and close friends. So can cats, but humans tend to co-exist with cats, since they are mostly untrainable. We control dogs and can make dogs an extension of our personalities and our values in a way it is hard to do with cats, birds, fish and most other common pets. One can look at the growing popularity of dog ownership as a humanistic response to the growing isolation of contemporary society. We could flip the script, though, and say it reflects the growing narcissism of the politics of selfishness: instead of putting time and money into other humans, we spend it on dogs that appear to agree with our every word and do whatever we say.

I’m just thinking out loud. I really have no idea why dogs have become so popular in our homes and in the media.  I will say however, that it does not speak well of the human race in the United States of American that in the same year that spending on pets increased once again, we cut food stamp and unemployment benefits, forcing hundreds of thousands of families into lives we wouldn’t wish on a dog.

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