Super Bowl

The Dumbest Night for Brands? It's Still the Super Bowl

Advertisers for the Big Game Tend to Perform at or Below Average for Their Categories

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The mostly sold-out spots are commanding just south of $4 million each, so CBS must be thrilled. Brands are spending additional dollars executing pre-event, cross-platform promotions, like Pepsi crowdsourcing photos that will be glimpsed during Beyonce's halftime show. The media, this outlet included, are gladly covering all this as if it makes inherent sense, and gearing up to measure the opinions of viewers to confirm those beliefs once the ads air.

At risk of being the lone outlier on this one, I say the Super Bowl remains the dumbest night for brands. It's one huge commercial for what's wrong with advertising in particular (second only to the recent political campaigns), and indicative of the continuing malaise underlying most branding. Though I've been writing about this since 2008, the budgets and brilliance have continued apace. It's worth reviewing what marketers overall have accomplished over the past few years:

  • A quarter of all brands' reputations have cratered, with few exceptions of solid improvement (Harris Interactive)

  • Less than half of consumers trust advertising (down about 25% since 2009, according to Nielsen). Many brands, like those at P&G, are feeling greater pressure on premium pricing despite high awareness (Bloomberg)

  • Customer loyalty is down, as switching brands more easily/often is up (Accenture)

  • Nearly three out of four CEOs say CMOs "lack business credibility" and even more are tired of hearing about 'brand equity' (Fournaise Marketing Group)

We're going to gather again in a few weeks to witness companies spend oodles of money to entertain us and call it business strategy? It's more like watching a drunk down another fifth and calling it temperance.

The addiction analogy is apt, since there's no other explanation for why our industry insists on celebrating awareness as if it were synonymous with meaning and utility. It's not, of course, and brands used to know it; David Ogilvy wrote 50 years ago that ads weren't entertainment or art but "a medium of information," and that a good ad doesn't draw attention to itself but "sells the product." Today, if brands can get people to waste time doing something ... anything ... it's considered a branding success, which usually means pitching nothing other than comedy or sex (two products none of this year's Bowl advertisers actually offer).

I know that the agencies and social advocates who sell Super Bowl campaigns have developed detailed cases on why their clients should buy them, but here's the Big Picture they miss:

A beauty pageant isn't marketing, and it distracts ad makers from their real purpose (see Ogilvy above). The "best" spots rarely correlate with any real-world success unless tied to a sampling giveaway, but instead prompt clicks and likes about the ads themselves. The half-life of this accomplishment is brief, and brand association is close to zero; I remember the one where a horse farts and lights some guy's hair, and that kid dressed like Darth Vader levitates his dad's car. I have no idea who paid for them. There are weather reports from a year ago that I recollect more clearly.

Useless is still useless, however creatively it's presented. Consumers are starved for meaning, utility and, above all, truth, which means brands need to come up with ways to provide that information while making it not just agreeable, but convincing. Super Bowl ads aspire to no such standard, any more than most paid commercial speech during the year. We talk as if we're in a new era of communications, but we still approach the work as most did in Ogilvy's day.

Sponsored social is still one way. I find it laughable that it's 2013 and brands are still paying money to get people to interact with their marketing, when nobody wakes up in the morning wishing they heard more from their toothpaste or could engage with their insurance provider. Worse, the Super Bowl social seems focused on getting consumers to focus on the event ... at which they won't be told anything useful. Getting people to talk about ads is one-way, glorified broadcasting, not legitimate peer-to-peer conversation.

There should be a Super Bowl discount. Businesses that advertise on the Super Bowl tend to perform at or below the averages for their industry categories during the rest of the year, according to thumbnail accounting I've been doing since 2008. This year's advertisers include brands facing big challenges -- like Anheuser-Busch, Best Buy, and PepsiCo -- that have absolutely no business wasting marketing dollars on the event. Should we start questioning the decision-making abilities and discounting the stock of every company that chooses to do so?

I'll watch the game and chuckle or tsk-tsk at the ads, read the reviews and then, along with everyone else, forget them, just as businesses across the country get fed case histories on why they should copy them. Reputations, pricing, and loyalty will continue to suffer all year long as consumers continue to wish they got different, better content from brands, not just more of it. They'll trust advertising even less by the time of next year's game.


JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy and co-author of "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.

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