Reading Sandoval’s piece on semiotics, I was reminded of the many, many awful Superbowl ads I’ve had the misfortune to watch over the years. There were many I could have chosen to look at in detail, but I ended up going with a Fiat 500 commercial from 2012.
The opening shot of the ad establishes its target audience. A man walks down the street. He is somewhere in his 30s, unimposing, wearing glasses and freshly pressed business clothes, and holding a cappuccino as he makes his way down a generic city street. Fiat’s target audience is therefore: upper middle class young white men who live in big cities and have a taste for the exotic (thus the choice of the cappuccino rather than an ordinary coffee). Furthermore, the man’s appearance establishes him as not particularly masculine.
The man sees a woman bending down in the street. He stares at her, and she takes offense. She gets in his face, speaking rapid Italian and slapping him. Suddenly, the video takes a turn. The woman grasps the man’s tie and her tone turns seductive. She takes some foam from his cappuccino with her fingers, spilling some on her breasts in the process. She leans in for a kiss, the man anticipates, and… she is revealed to be a Fiat 500 Abarth.
Setting aside the use of a woman in the place of an actual, literal object, the woman in the Fiat commercial is further objectified by the fact that she does not speak English. The commercial does not offer subtitles, and thus the woman’s speech loses all meaning to the majority of its viewing audience beyond a signifier for “sexy” and “exotic.” The audience is meant to react exactly as the man in the commercial does — by nodding enthusiastically without understanding a word. Furthermore, the fact that the woman in the commercial is at first offended by the man’s gaze but then ends up seducing him reenforces the idea that woman secretly find street harassment sexy, and that “no” often ends up meaning “yes.”
There are subtler signs surrounding the male protagonist of the video. He is marked as unmasculine through his dress and build, and his glasses mark him as a nerd. He does not dare harass the woman verbally, instead only finding the “courage” to stare at her while she is not looking. When she approaches him, their height difference is emphasized. She dominates the situation. When she seduces him, he is offered a sexual opportunity where his clothing marks him as “virgin.” When the foam falls on her breasts, he is free to look. Ultimately, the woman is revealed to be a car — not something that drives and dominates him, but something he is able to drive and dominate. The message here is: Our car is powerful, sexy, and beautiful, and it is attracted to you. You can control it.