Writing and language lessons from the greatest Super Bowl ad of all time

[Editor’s note: This essay has been adapted from one that appeared on the Poynter site after the 2012 Super Bowl.  It became a chapter in the book "How to Write Short: Work Craft for Fast Times," published in 2013 by Little, Brown.]

As we prepare for the Super Bowl, as an athletic contest, a news event, a cultural experience, and a marketing extravaganza, my memory takes me back to my favorite.  In the 2012 Super Bowl, the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots 21-17.  Madonna performed an extravagant half-time show in which she, looking like Cleopatra in drag, was enthroned on a stage and drawn onto the field by what looked like a legion of Roman gladiators.

As I described in my book “How to Write Short:  Word Craft for Fast Times,” at the end of the first half the Patriots led 10-9. We had already seen dozens of those expensive Super Bowl commercials, ads for cars, tech companies, soft drinks, beer, and, of course, Doritos — mini-narratives featuring cute dogs, talking babies, and impossible women. Some were clever, some lame. More than once I scratched my head, trying to figure out what product was for sale.

Then I, like many millions of others, was taken by surprise. Leading into the half-time activities was an ad widely considered the most interesting and effective of the season. I will offer the opinion now, years later, that it belongs in the pantheon of Super Bowl ads, maybe at the pinnacle.

You did not recognize the voice of the narrator at first, but it was Clint Eastwood’s. It turned out to be a two-minute Chrysler spot, but it was perceived as something more important and more powerful: a highly idealized statement about the fall and rise of the American auto industry as a symbol for a general revival of the American spirit.  I chose to analyze it originally for the Poynter website and turned it into a chapter in “How to Write Short” because it measured about 260 words, almost exactly the length of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The ad demonstrates the relative nature of defining length in a text. In the land of thiry-, sixty-, and ninety-second spots, the two-minute spot towers over the rest, the longest (and most expensive) of the lot. Yet in most other contexts, 260 words constitute not a water tower but a fire hydrant.  From Lincoln to Eastwood, Americans love to be inspired by two-minute blasts of good writing.

Don’t be surprised that my commentary (in brackets) is longer than the original text (in italics), proving only that good short writing often demands a level of attention that leads to more writing.

Here we go:

It’s halftime.
[A brilliant opening. Two simple words, one a contraction, placed in the immediate context of television viewers watching the game.]

Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.
[American civic culture is saturated with sports metaphors, analogies, and allusions. While these can become clichéd and annoying, they are in context here.]

It’s halftime in America, too.
[Another sharp line, a riff off Reagan’s “Morning in America” commercial, yet subtle enough that it does not signal that this will be a heavy-handed ideological piece.]

People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.
[This passage works as what the screenwriter Robert McKee calls an “inciting incident,” an event that dramatically changes the way we see ourselves and the world. The incident is not specified, but no matter. We recognize it as an allusion to the collapse of the American economy, and all the damage it caused. No longer are we just watching a game. Now we are listening to a voice we recognize, a gritty voice we associate with the cowboy bravado of spaghetti Westerns or Dirty Harry aggression, but one that now echoes the coarse friction of a deep and protracted recession.]

The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.
[We would expect the sentences to be short throughout, a strategy that builds dramatic and emotional tension. Here those short bits have a rhythm and variety that demand attention and move the narrative forward.]

I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life.
[Suddenly the narrator is speaking in the first-person singular.  He sounds like someone who has lived life and can speak with authority. The word downturns works hard here, standing for everything from personal failure and psychological depression to a collective economic failure.]

And, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.
[Notice the tactical shift from the first-person singular to the plural we — e pluribus unum, one out of many. That last verbless sentence (also called an intentional fragment) is the most rhetorical in the ad, with the simple metaphor of the fog followed by three allegorical villains: Division, Discord, and Blame. We are not in darkness, but in a fog, confused, trying to find our way. By implication the fog is never permanent. The fog lifts.]

But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one.
[I think of this as fake history, the way we would have liked it to be. What could the writer be referring to? The Civil War? The Great Depression? Vietnam? Watergate? We never act as one, but that doesn’t mean the language doesn’t invite us to imagine that we could or should.]

Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.
[More propaganda, but I admire the way that last sentence resolves itself. “We’ll make one” may seem like a general statement about finding solutions, but it also stands at the heart of a manufacturing economy. America needs to learn how to “make” things again, an evocation of what has been lost in Detroit and elsewhere throughout America.]

All that matters now is what’s ahead.  How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win?
[When a writer or speaker repeats a pattern (like those questions) three times, you know he or she is headed toward what dancers call the kick line. The first question and the third are metaphors of competition, but they frame the language of reconciliation.

Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.
[While the first half of the ad might be interpreted as having borrowed from the Republican playbook, here we are reminded that some unpopular policies of a Democratic administration bailed out America’s automotive industry.]

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.
[My one negative response is to the needless shift from one sport to another, from football to boxing, and perhaps to stock car racing, if you can hear that in the roar of engines. That roar is meant to evoke the sound of industrial history, invention, and prosperity, from the transcontinental railroad to the postwar construction of the interstate highway system to the creation of muscle cars like the Mustang and Camaro to the sounds of fighter pilots and helicopters at war.]

Yeah ...
[Much better than yes. Yeah is the affirmation of the common man and woman and American child.]

… it’s halftime, America. And, our second half is about to begin.
[A strong ending, language that echoes the beginning, returns us to our American traditions of sports and competition, and implies that we are not at the end of the game — of the great American experiment —but smack-dab in the middle, with more greatness to come.]

I don’t know how many Americans were present to hear Lincoln’s two-minute address at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Chrysler’s two-minute spot, the work of the Oregon ad agency Wieden+Kennedy, was viewed by an audience of more than 110 million worldwide.

Here’s hoping that the 2018 Super Bowl surprises us with an ad as creative and as meaningful.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.

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