Regarding Newt Gingrich’s favorite Super Bowl ad

Stringer Bell Faswell circa 2008

Stringer Bell Faswell circa 2008

Obviously, Stringer is the cutest puppy in the world, even now that he is an old pro. Last night, a Budweiser advertisement featuring the second-cutest puppy in the world aired during the Super Bowl, and people loved it. According to USA Today’s Ad Meter, “Lost Dog” was the most popular ad of the broadcast. Coincidentally, Newt Gingrich announced on Twitter that it was his favorite, too. Newt Gingrich is a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, to paraphrase the De Lome Letter. Video after the jump.

If you can’t watch videos of beer commercials at work, like you work at the Vatican or something, “Lost Dog” plays out like this:

  1. A puppy lives with the Budweiser clydesdales, but he gets lost.
  2. The puppy wanders around while the guy who works in the Budweiser stables looks for him.
  3. The puppy is almost home when a wolf appears! The Budweiser clydesdales burst from their stables and frighten the wolf away.
  4. Denouement in which handsome stablehand gives puppy a bath

Doesn’t that make you want to get drunk? Obviously, we should not analyze this 30-second beer commercial too closely. After decades of clydesdales and Super Bowls and the cultural expectation that we will see both together, this ad is a ritual whose function is to remind us that Budweiser’s exists, plus trigger compulsive behavior in alcoholics.

Lawrence of Arabia it ain’t. But it’s a narrative, and every narrative tells us something. “Lost Dog” is not a beer commercial of ideas. What we have here is a melodrama—a dramatic story with exaggerated characters and exciting events, designed to appeal to the emotions.

The protagonist, a cute puppy, embodies innocence and vulnerability. He is so innocent that he wanders into a horse trailer and finds himself far from home, even though home is the only place he wants to be. He is so vulnerable that not being home puts him in danger. I don’t know about you, but I tensed up watching him run across the street at :19. Budweiser won’t run a commercial in which a cute puppy gets hit by a car until Super Bowl LX, so we’re safe there. But the good people at the Anomaly agency prove willing to yank at our heartstrings any other way they can get hold of them.

At :23, for example, the puppy hides in a box and gets scared when he hears thunder. At :26, our hunky stablehand presses his face to a horse’s face, because they are both sad. The whole thing is intercut with shots of him putting up “lost dog” posters; meanwhile, we listen to a version of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” that replaces the boppy energy of the original with glum piano.

It is sad that the puppy is lost, you guys. If he ran away from the farm, we might mistake this for an adventure narrative, but he got taken away in a truck. If the stablehand had a life outside the stable—a shot of him stepping out on the porch to get away from his girlfriend’s kids, for example, and nipping from a flask he has hidden in the mailbox—we might get confused about who the protagonist is. But this is melodrama, so each character cleanly evokes one cluster of emotions, and the plot turns on a clear duality between disaster and relief.

And then, when the puppy is on the hill overlooking his home and at least one clydesdale sees him, we get the wolf. From a perspective of plot and theme, it’s a total left turn. What had been a story about loss and tragedy in the Greek sense1 becomes a story of antagonism.

It’s still melodrama, in that the wolf is another exaggerated character who embodies heartless predation. But what had been a protagonist v. nature story, where the threats are sadness and the elements, becomes a protagonist v. villain story, in which the threats are violence and a scary monster.

Consider this change from a storyboard perspective. The arc of this commercial is almost exactly the same if the puppy finally gets home, sees the stables from the hill, and has an emotional reunion with stablehand and horses. The only differences are A) the clydesdales are not directly involved and B) the climax is less dramatic.

That wolf climax is a choice; the people who wrote this commercial wanted a stronger ending to Act II. But the dramatic situation they thought of breaks the unity of tone and theme. They put a villain in there, so the story stops being about the tragic innocence of the puppy and starts being about the evil of someone else.

I submit that this artistically incongruous choice reflects the way our culture is now. Somewhere, the people behind this commercial lost confidence in a realistic story where evil comes from ignorance and misfortune and embraced a mildly ridiculous one—the wolf lives 100 yards away from a giant horse farm?—where evil comes from a malevolent actor.

Twenty-first-century America has undergone a similar change. We have withdrawn from a progressive vision that attributes suffering to ignorance, mistakes and the fundamental difficulty of life. We have embraced an atavistic vision in which suffering comes from evil—from Al Qaeda or malevolent billionaires. It’s not that the puppy doesn’t know how to get home. It’s that a wolf is stopping him.

In my uncharitable heart, I suspect that’s why Newt Gingrich loved this commercial. It reassured him that the complex problems of ignorance and hard conditions are the simple problem of somebody needs to scare away this wolf. But probably the real answer is not as complicated. Probably, he just looked up whichever Super Bowl commercial was most popular and said he liked that.

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