What’s certain about Super Bowl LV: The game must go on
One sometimes surreal aspect of producing a business publication focused on a specific vertical is that, even in times of overwhelming crisis, you need to keep focusing on that vertical. (“Aliens invade the Earth! Here’s how P&G is changing its marketing plan.”) Your editorial mission is your editorial mission, and the show—the newsgathering, the storytelling—must go on, even if the world appears to be coming apart at the seams.
We’ve been thinking about that a lot throughout the entire pandemic, and we also thought of it as we chanced across the Jan. 14, 1991 issue of Advertising Age as part of an ongoing deep dive into our archives for the “90 Years of Ad Age” series.
Among the front-page headlines that week: “Carmakers set to shift” (“Carmakers are changing tactics to cope with hard times that could only worsen with oil shortages accompanying a Persian Gulf war,” the story begins). And “Several airlines face crash dive” (“If war breaks out, U.S. airlines could face an unprecedented economic crisis”).
And then the main headline: “Gulf war could delay Super Bowl” (“The National Football League is considering the postponement of Super Bowl XXV ... if war breaks out in the Persian Gulf”).
It’s not hard to imagine a non-marketing/media person at the time seeing that front page and thinking, “Wait, we might be on the verge of World War III, and you’re worried about the Super Bowl?”
Well, yes. Because, of course, the Big Game is ... more than just a big game (and commercial showcase). It’s a linchpin of modern-day American identity—a national holiday centered around outsized ambition and extreme competition and over-the-top showmanship (and salesmanship).
Ad Age’s 1991 story made the Super Bowl sound almost like a patriotic duty. “Sports in the past have been good for the morale of troops,” we quoted the NFL’s communications chief as saying. “It shows things are normal back home, and they like to know what their team is doing.”
Certainty about uncertainty
As it happens, WW III did not break out, and the combat phase of the Gulf War—branded/marketed as Operation Desert Storm—was something of a rout, stretching barely a month and a half (Jan. 17-Feb. 28). Super Bowl XXV went on as scheduled on Jan. 27 in Tampa, with Whitney Houston kicking things off by belting out arguably the greatest-ever rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” ABC broadcast the game without incident, though it preempted the halftime show starring New Kids on the Block for an ABC News update about the war (NKOTB got their tape-delayed moment in the sun after the game). And, oh yeah, the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20 to 19.
Twenty-nine years later, amid a pandemic, we’re once again trying to find ways to convince ourselves that “things are normal,” or might be again, some day. So we soldier on, tamping down our collective anxiety over all the unknown unknowns.
And at Age Age, we publish stories with headlines like “How to plan ads for an uncertain Super Bowl: Just assume it’s happening,” as we did recently. Because certainty about endless uncertainty is the new normal.