SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AdAge.com) -- "Make a hole! Make a hole!"
Just when you think things can't get more unlovely, a no-necked bouncer ferociously barks a nonsensical order that somehow makes sense above the DJ'd din and the cold. That's right. It's cold. Arizona in early February, chosen for football and advertising's biggest event precisely because of a simple climatological inevitability, is chilly. In the by-and-large open-air bar, the mercury is sluggish -- in the 40s maybe -- and fingers are like fish sticks, too frosty to grip the beer that's further thinning your blood for long. And every part of you is longing for the warmth of your hotel, which is a good 40-minute drive away and feeling farther by the second.
But John Elway, winner of two Super Bowls, is not in your hotel room. He can't be, because he is just six feet away, looking creased yet handsome and hale while struggling to find daylight in a rush of tiny makeup-spackled, surgically enhanced women trying to go where he was. Mr. Elway seems unrecognized by the blonde horde, most of whom were, at best, little more than ideas when he rose to prominence in part for a mobility that is not evident tonight.
Tackling the crowds
The bouncer, perhaps seeing the Denver Bronco legend struggling like an upstream-paddling salmon, screams, "Make a hole!" In better times, he might have chosen to say something like "Make way," but if he is being smirky and deliberately using football jargon, the word choice is actually kind of funny and smart -- for a bouncer. But more than anything else right now, the semantic dissonance seems to mirror the strange, chaotic mix of stripper types, corporate types and NFLers around him. Something like a hole is eventually made, allowing entry and egress into the one enclosed and thus potentially warm enclave in the entire brand-new, Rande-Gerber-designed lounge.
If you believe the Super Bowl media swarm, this party, thrown by Maxim magazine, is one of the biggest reasons to forsake your couch, homemade nachos and the comfort of friends in exchange for a plastic seat, stadium-made nachos and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the motley masses of diehard yet upscale fans and corporate executives who have descended on the greater Phoenix area. There's the game, too, but you can watch that on TV. The splashy parties thrown by everyone from CAA to ESPN to Sports Illustrated are what draw the heavy hitters, many of whom don't bother to go to the game. For the past few years, Maxim's event has rivaled Playboy's for supreme Super Bowl party and even out-Hefs the Hef by some measures, such as the decadence of the locale, the entertainment and, of course, the opportunity to hobnob with celebrities.
Maybe hobnob isn't the word. A better word, or phrase, may be "gawk at from a distance." Even if you're important or lucky enough to get in, a caste system built on fame still exists, with access to dwellers of the VIP area, such as Carson Palmer and Steve Nash, severely limited by more of those bouncer types. However, if you know the right people or are a good enough clinger, you can end up getting close to them or even saying "hello," as I did with Mr. Nash, a Phoenix Sun and two-time MVP of the National Basketball Association.
Even when proximity is achieved, the us-and-them difference is pretty visible. While I was standing by the fire pit where Mr. Nash and his entourage were warming themselves, a rogue blonde who snuck into the area approached, looked over me and the people I was standing with, and sneered, "So why are they letting you guys stand here?"
This could have been a nasty dig, but I felt for her. It was cold, she was close to naked, and it probably was not easy making this all feel worth it. To obtain admittance to the party, she and her friend likely had braved a long, cold wait with other similarly barely clad women in an unheated reception tent -- a young, good-looking line for the abattoir that stretched for at least half a football field. Women in one line. Men in another. I let it go.
A lack of advertising
Celebrity's twin is brand, and you'd think that since the Super Bowl is advertising's biggest day, an actual trip to the game would be like burrowing into the belly of the branding beast, offering yourself up for the best that good ol' American salesmanship has to offer. After all, if you've made it to University of Phoenix Stadium, you've probably got a bit of money to throw around. But what's striking is how little good marketing actually goes on in or around the stadium. While there were golf outings and hospitality tents aplenty, there was very little of the kind of physical activation that makes you actually want to buy stuff -- which seemed to be lost opportunity.
There were a few exceptions. The folks at Under Armour -- who were generous enough to help me with last-minute admission to the game and kind enough to let me hang out with them -- had a smart display of their new line of cross-trainers at the Maxim party, giving out pairs to some of the VIPs there. They also had the very charismatic Eric Ogbogu, the "Big E" of Under Armour's advertising, on hand to pose for pictures with gaggles of women and a couple of pairs of guys who looked like they had just crawled out of an apartment in their mother's basement.
More often, though, the intersection of brand and Super Bowl was more like the NFL Experience, which one wag described as the "NFL Experience minus experience." Meant to be a way for average fans who can't land tickets to get close to the game -- entry was $17.50 for adults and $12.50 for kids -- it seemed like a state fair as designed by Roger Goodell and a few of his best advertisers. Sure, there was a Ferris wheel and a bunch of cool activities that allowed kids to do 40-meter dashes or try to thread passes through a tight target. But there was also a Bank of America-sponsored "VIP lounge" that happened to be the only lounge I've ever seen to forbid food and drink. The NFL Experience also had a Pepsi tent with a DJ, a photo booth and little to no raison d'etre.
Home Depot, State Farm don't disappoint
Home Depot, on the other hand, had a fantastic setup that included a little workshop where kids could hammer stuff, nicely done PR videos on NFL players' community involvement and a bit of activation with a table for its home-remodeling service. Samsung did a smart thing by showing off how clear its TV screens are by hooking a bunch up to Xboxes so kids could play "Madden."
Perhaps most in the spirit of the game, the staid insurer State Farm put up a red tent with video games inside. Somehow it worked. A few dozen kids formed a line that snaked around on itself. I'm not sure what they or, for that matter, State Farm thought they'd get out of the State Farm fan experience, but asses, as they say, were in the seats. And perhaps therein lies the weekend's message.
Screw relevance. We're at the Super Bowl, baby.