Commentary by Scott Donaton


Sophomoric Humor Fails as Compelling Entertainment

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A flatulent horse. Tens of millions of Americans open their doors, and this is what marketers drag into their living rooms. A farting horse.
Scott Donaton, editor of 'Advertising Age.'

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Yeah, thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Entertainment bowl
The Super Bowl, more entertainment spectacle than sporting event (despite this year's nail-biting finish), is a perfect platform for marketers to demonstrate how their messages can break through in a cluttered, fragmented and viewer-controlled media universe. As advertising moves from unwelcome intruder to invited guest, it is more likely to be cloaked as entertainment, as something viewers choose to spend time with because of a perceived intrinsic value.

The expectation is there with the Super Bowl that the ads will enhance the experience -- viewers have been conditioned by breathless segments of morning shows, newspaper stories and cable news reports to tune in as much for the ads as for the game. But there's a sense of artificial, forced frivolity that surrounds the event, and the mediocrity of the creative reminds that the ad business won't be saved merely by turning up the volume on 30-second commercials.

'What happened here?'
"If advertising is the show business of business, what happened here?" said Mitch Kanner, a Cannes festival mainstay who now runs Integrated Entertainment Partners. "This is a poor attempt at showing they understand Madison and Vine." Are agencies to blame, or marketers? I asked. "Yes," said Mitch.

What passed for creativity on Super Sunday -- a dog chomping a yuppie's testicles to get him to release his beer, a quarterback homoerotically rubbing the toilet paper dangling from his center's behind ("Whatever he's doing he sure seems to like it") or a lip-synching Justin Timberlake "accidentally" exposing Janet Jackson's breast -- were pathetic attempts at marketing disguised as entertainment. It's astonishing that a terrific game of football managed to break out.

(I'm pausing at this point to acknowledge the remote possibility that, for many viewers, farting horses are funny and we industry pundits are off base. When Donny Deutsch, playing Monday morning quarterback on Today, blasted the work that topped USA Today's poll, I couldn't help agreeing, while realizing that perhaps viewers' opinions were more important than ours. Maybe Anheuser-Busch is brilliant for recognizing that sophomoric humor sells beer, and we're wrong to hold them to a higher standard. Nah!)

Lack of ideas
What was lacking in many of the Super Bowl ads, even the truly funny ones, was an idea -- and that will come back to haunt marketers and agencies.

Three days after the Patriots' victory, Advertising Age hosted its second-annual standing-room-only Madison + Vine conference in Beverly Hills. The speakers included some of the biggest names in branded entertainment, such as keynoter John Hayes of American Express, famed TV producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Apprentice), General Motors' Mike Browner and Interscope's Steve Berman.

Branded entertainment
The themes that emerged over the course of the day: Marketers need to set aside money to explore branded entertainment; they need to take risks; they need to admit the inevitable breakdown of their business models and accept the inevitability of change. The branded entertainment space is moving past grand pronouncements and philosophical debates to focus on real-world initiatives and results, and lessons learned from success and failure.

But also hammered home repeatedly -- probably most eloquently by Burnett -- was that the idea always has to come first, or failure is sure to follow. Quite a concept.

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