Almost despite itself, the furor over the "Brokeback Mountain" meets "Lady and the Tramp"-themed spot illustrated the deep divisions furrowing our culture, a network of chasms particularly perilous for any advertiser that thinks it can cover the landscape with a single message. That the commercial now registers as either a hotbed of homophobia or a sophomoric throwaway and not much in between just goes to show the near impossibility of marketing to the masses effectively these days, a surprisingly sharp lesson given that it's, you know, just an ad for a calorific hunk of chocolate, caramel and peanuts.
Call it the Super Bowl Catch-22: To rise above the clutter, you need to be controversial, but being even mildly or inanely controversial in front of a national audience of 90 million people -- each a unique combination of faith, gender, politics, countenance and fetish -- means, inevitably, seriously pissing some people off. By relying on broad-stroke humor, Snickers tried to stand out above all the other broad humor. Instead, it got spanked by advocacy groups, panned by its industry and embarrassed in the press.
'If you offend no one ... '
"If you offend no one, chances are you don't have a strong communications program," said Drew Neisser, president-CEO of Renegade Marketing. You can blame this reality on a lot of things. A media world that grows noisier with every new MySpace page or website devoted to Paris Hilton's storage space. A marketing industry that's machine-gunning more and more messages into the world. The unrealistic and, this year, largely unfulfilled expectation of what a Super Bowl ad can be. And, not least, the enormous pressure that comes with a $2.6 million 30-second media buy.
So, as the mass-marketing machine wheezes into its latter years, has the schoolyard act of cheesing someone off for a bit of attention now become standard operating practice? Is the backlash that results a necessary cost of doing business when your business is creating buzz? The kind of bleak conclusion for many: Yeah, sort of.
"I struggle with this one" Mr. Neisser said, "because I think marketing should always do some good. But if you're pleasing everyone, you're not really reaching anyone. You want to surprise people, and surprise, by its nature, means showing people things they haven't seen before. That's sure to entertain some people and alienate others."
Wave of outrage
During the first quarter of the game Snickers gave Super Bowl viewers something they likely hadn't seen before: Two mechanics eating from opposite ends of the same candy bar accidentally end up locking lips. They respond to the hunger-induced slag against their manhood by ripping out fistfuls of chest hair. The spot, coupled with a website that featured pro football players reacting in disgust to the kiss, prompted a wave of outage led by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Masterfoods ended up pulling the spot; scrubbing its website clean; and likely regretting that its agency, TBWA, New York, didn't offer GLAAD the chance to analyze the ad, as it once planned to do.
The PR effects were mixed. The day after the Super Bowl, the Snickers website saw one of the biggest traffic spikes of any of the game's advertisers, according to Hitwise. On Thursday, however, a Google search on "Snickers" yielded a summary of the product's Wikipedia entry that included a description that's probably not terribly satisfying to the folks at Masterfoods. It called Snickers the "best-selling homophobic candy bar of all time."
The resulting uproar was probably the strongest reaction to a Super Bowl moment since the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction three years ago or the infamous Miller Lite "Catfight" spot that aired the year before that. Since then, the big game has shown itself to be the media petri dish that best displays how various strains of American culture do battle. It's the one time each year when Americans can be counted on to care about ads as something more than interruptions and, increasingly, it's the time when marketers and agencies, interest groups, bloggers and journalists spend days following rowdy do-si-dos composed of the increasingly predictable steps of offense and outrage, denial and apology.
The cost of celebrity
"Being underneath the microscope is what you're paying $2.6 million for," said Cal McAllister, principal at Seattle agency Wexley School for Girls. "It's like how being photographed in your underwear is the cost of being a celebrity."
Besides the Snickers dust-up, there were public slap-downs of a few other ads. The loudest criticisms were lodged against General Motors, for trivializing suicide in an ad that depicts a laid-off assembly-line robot jumping off a bridge, and against Nationwide Insurance's depiction of Kevin Federline's decline into a post-Britney fast-food career. The National Restaurant Association chief wrote in an apparently straightfaced letter to the insurer: "The restaurant industry is a wonderful place to work-for a year or for a career."
What's a marketer to do with a spectrum of criticism that ranges from the genuine to the groping to the positively loopy? Nationwide ignored it, and GM, after staying the course, eventually relented and said it would edit the commercial, likely removing suicide references.
Anheuser-Busch's high security
One marketer that's no stranger to controversy and was pretty clearly trying to prevent it in its new content is Anheuser-Busch. With Monday's launch of Bud.tv, Bud surprised many by making the content difficult to share and gated behind a lengthy registration process that likely scared off more than a few users. This was largely to make sure the content didn't make it into the hands of minors and draw the ire of watchdog groups.
Wexley's Mr. McAllister said smart brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike "are taking risks in places where the right people will see them" -- largely on the internet, where younger consumers are spending a lot of time -- but, he added, that attitude isn't common for major marketers.
"We have a divided country, and that makes a lot of brands gun-shy," he said. "They shouldn't be that way. They should be true to themselves and not worried about losing a blue state or a red state. But big brands don't think that way. Big brands got big by being all things to all people."
Of course, you could argue that part of the reason Snickers caught such flack was because of a web presence that, according to GLAAD, featured an alternate ending that showed the men beating each other with wrenches. Even if Snickers was trying to hide its edgier content on the internet, it got outed.