Think back to last year’s Super Bowl, 2021, when among the higher-profile ads was a reboot of Wayne’s World by Uber Eats. The series of spots featured the lovable antiheroes Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) getting up to their old public-access-cable antics. The messaging aim was clear: to make a pandemic-themed appeal to Wayne and Garth’s Generation X audience, the current “sandwich” generation tending to both children and aging parents. Uber Eats positioned itself as the easiest and safest way to put almost any food on a kitchen table while sheltering in place.
That was just one among many 2021 Super Bowl ads that leaned heavily on pandemic and social justice themes. General Motors indulged our fantasies to get as far out of the house as possible with an electric car ad in which Gen-X icon Will Ferrell took viewers all the way to Norway. Squarespace conscripted Dolly Parton to sing a new version of her hit theme song for the 1980 movie 9 to 5. Now called “5 to 9,” the song soundtracked scenes of office workers gleefully abandoning their cubicles to do ebullient dances of inspiration and self-actualization, and then going on to make, market, and live their dreams. It was a canny ad during a time when almost everyone was already out of the office and working from home. We were encouraged to take advantage of that liberation. Squarespace was one of many advertisers to address us with sympathy, earnestness, and outreach in a time when we needed it badly.
Now skip ahead to the 2022 Super Bowl. The pandemic is still with us, but it’s not quite the elephant in the room that it was a year ago, and this year’s ads made it clear that our priorities have changed in the meantime — even as some of the celebrities of the 2021 ads turned up again. Dolly Parton now plugged T-Mobile in an ad co-starring Miley Cyrus, but the spot almost totally dispensed with the narrative ebullience and audience empowerment of the previous year’s Squarespace ad. Instead, we got a low-budget, breezy satire of the social justice messaging that, along with the urgencies of the pandemic, had dominated the previous year’s ads. (T-Mobile even gave us the accompanying pensive piano music we heard incessantly after the shutdown began). “Do it for the phones!” Parton and Cyrus implored us.
Yes, it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek; no, that cheek did not conceal the general trend of the 2022 ads: The product is everything; the audience is important only insofar as we serve that product by buying it — do it for the phones, not for yourself. Instead of story, we got stuff. Instead of sincerity, we got parody. And instead of depth of feeling, we mostly got its phantom imposter, nostalgia — and specifically Gen-X nostalgia, from the Seth Rogen-Paul Rudd memory lane trip for Lay’s to Coinbase’s winkingly deadpan Space Invaders-era icon (in fact a scannable qr code) bouncing around an otherwise blank screen.
We’ve known for many years that the point of the Super Bowl is not a football game at all. The spectacle is closer to — indeed, it’s a more accurate version of — another annual dead-of-winter event: the State of the Union address. The Super Bowl is America’s most concentrated (and globally broadcast) referendum on what and who matter to us, what ideas we’re pursuing, what problems we’re solving, and how we’re talking about all of it. The strongest message in 2022, in varying ways and differing degrees, was: “Generation X.” It was almost certainly not a coincidence that the halftime show was a parade of early-1990s hip-hop and gangsta rap stars. The media responded with articles entitled, for instance, “The Super Bowl 56 Halftime Show Was A Gen X Triumph.” Prominent cultural tastemakers and critics gave us tweets like:
And headlines declared: “Brands Sent The Message That Gen Xers Over 50 Are More Relevant Than Ever Before.”
But timeout: That last headline was actually written about the 2019 Super Bowl, three years ago — and it was for an article published by AARP The Magazine. One of the greatest and probably most crippling myths the pandemic allowed us to believe was that sea change happens all at once. It never does. Generation X didn’t conquer America overnight, or even starting with the 2021 Super Bowl. It started years ago, and it took them so long, they got old doing it.
It was simply that, in 2022, the takeover was declared complete. The proof of that was quite clear in the return to Super Bowl ad-space of none other than Mike Myers — but not as Wayne in his World. Instead, he reappeared as Dr. Evil, the spoofy villain of Myers’s 1990s-era Austin Powers franchise. The client was the same General Motors electric car division for which Will Ferrell had gone to Norway in 2021, but in the new ad, Dr. Evil went right to the source: the ad’s conceit was that he had taken over GM’s world headquarters. Game over. Winner, Generation X.
The Dr. Evil ad was one of the very few in the 2022 Super Bowl broadcast that bothered to have much of a conceit at all, or even much of a message beyond buy-our-product. With one or two exceptions, like the spot for Google Pixel’s new skin color-accurate phones, Super Bowl advertising in 2022 was nakedly ambitious in its selling priorities. The ads seemed to dispense almost entirely with any reach toward substance or authenticity. But looked at through a longer Gen-X lens, it was possible to see that they spoke to a peculiar form of Gen-X authenticity, which is actually built on an ironic veneer of inauthenticity — and vice versa, as neatly summed up in the Gen-X movie Singles, when Kyra Sedgwick responds to her suitor Campbell Scott’s claim that he didn’t want to come onto her with an act: “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.”
Having an act that is not having an act, like that Coinbase icon floating around the blank screen for 30 precious seconds of Super Bowl ad time, is also known as Pretending Not To Care. And pretending not to care is Generation X’s way of caring. Gangsta rap is assaultive as a means of self-protection — the best defense is a good offense, in football terms — not outright attack. The same goes for Gnagsta’s musical contemporary Grunge’s carapace of Oh well, whatever, never mind. A resistance to mainstream commodity culture, even a merely posed one, has been a part of that defense system ever since Generation X’s founding voice, Douglas Coupland, declared 30 years ago on his entire cohort’s behalf, loudly in all-caps, I AM NOT A TARGET MARKET.
Now that this non-target market is getting old, its priorities have changed, and so have its spending habits. According to one source, “This group is launching the next phase of life with significant purchasing power. In fact, Pew Research found that Generation X is the only generation that has recovered the wealth it lost in the last recession — and brands are taking note.” Brands have Generation X’s money on their minds and their minds on Generation X’s money. The messengers they sent out during the 2022 Super Bowl to get it were no surprise. They included, along with Mike Myers hawking electric cars, Jim Carrey in the form of his old Cable Guy to promote Verizon 5G, and Seinfeld impresario Larry David, who time-traveled (in the service of selling us cryptocurrency) to pivotal moments in historic innovations, each of which he disparaged.
The message in both cases was clear: This guy is hopelessly out of date. And that message hinted at the authentic substance hidden beneath the Super Bowl’s veneer of Gen-X nostalgia, if that’s really what it was. The substance is fear — fear that it’s already too late for Generation X, which even in the prime of midlife is still standing by watching geriatric Boomers and Silents cling to the levers of power, while Millennials and Gen-Zers lap their own Gen-X parents in cultural relevance.
Yet there Generation X was, front and center throughout the Super Bowl. But if it is now the target market it always claimed not to be, how can messaging get underneath their thick skin and appeal to an authentic emotion less crippling than fear? Does anything matter to the oh-well-whatever-nevermind generation, whose favorite nostalgia song, brought (back) to them by none other than Wayne’s World, culminates in the line “Nothing really matters”?
The answer to that seemingly insoluble question may have been lurking in GM’s Mike-Myers-as-Dr.-Evil ad. At first, he characteristically and blithely dismisses the environmentalist message — reduce tailpipe emissions — until he sees its eventual beneficiary: an infant. At the sight of the little bundle, swaddled in the gentle arms of a nice nerdy Gen-X guy, Dr. Evil’s heart is jolted by an unexpected shot of tender emotion. Suddenly invested in the fight-climate-change message, he starts to plot his next move; but he is stopped — exactly halfway through the ad, at its critical turning point — by his henchwoman Frau Farbissinia, who shouts at him: “You must help save the world first! Then you can take over the world!”
Dr. Evil is so enamored of this line that he pretends he thought of it himself and then repeats it, driving the message home: “I will help save the world first; then take over the world.”
That message was surely truer music to Generation X’s ears than anything rapped during the halftime show. In its youth, Generation X was not in the least worried about the future of the world (because everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day; it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine). But it has been widely observed that Generation X has evolved from its latchkey-kid beginnings into a group deeply committed to taking care of its own kids, and, by extension, the planet. It’s now a group of devoted nurturers and caretakers. That’s where Generation X’s authenticity lives now.
But the way to reach it isn’t through playing on those caretakers’ emotional heartstrings; sentimentality and even, to a degree, sentiment, won’t work. Communicators have to approach Generation X by way of irony. Irony has always been Generation X’s true currency, and it can be a very powerful one — as long as it’s used not as a defense mechanism or a delivery vehicle for cynicism, but rather in the service of cutting through mere image and spin and seeing things for what they really are. Irony is, after all — as a linchpin Gen-X movie reminds us — “when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.”
And for Generation X, the actual way of taking over the world isn’t by literally taking it over. Whether by competitive force or by devious, Dr. Evil-style scheming. It’s by saving the world from itself: a peculiar but poignant mission that mashes up the will to power with an almost contradictory instinct to protect the vulnerable. (Isn’t it ironic?) Save enough children, repair enough of environmental damage, do humble service to humanity: Only then, by taking the world in its arms, will it “bow down on both knees” (as Dr. Dre commands). Can Generation X receive the message and make good on its mission? That’s the next chapter of their story, and there’s plenty of time left to write it. The second half has only just begun.