For Brands, Super Bowl Ads Are Just a Distraction

Why Creative Can Be a Curse

By Published on .

Jonathan Salem Baskin
Jonathan Salem Baskin

Though the big game is over, we still don't know the winner. You see, the Packers might have won the competition on the field, but the real fight is between the brands that spent many millions to one-up one another with funny, heartstring-tugging, or otherwise creative commercials.

That battle started long before the game did. Budweiser filmed a mini-movie. Mercedes Benz raced cars to a finish line outside the stadium. Twentieth Century Fox and Doritos paid for social-media contests and promotions. Now, endless rankings and reviews will pick the winners (some started in real-time during the game, and a few appearing in this publication). Topping these lists is a strategic goal, since having the most-celebrated creative spot is synonymous with creating great advertising.

Actually, no it isn't. Forget what your agency pitched you, and ignore the results from the voting parties they sponsored. It doesn't matter that we chuckled or tsk-tsked last night; it was a manufactured, make-believe, awfully expensive distraction. This year's Super Bowl ad insanity should be a reminder to us that great creative can be an absolute curse on brands.

I won't waste your time blasting the ROI; you already know that vanity and vague hopes for headlines drive most of it, and the math for the rare examples that prompt transactions (free breakfasts or internet porn) doesn't add up once you start looking for sales conversions or brand loyalty. Even the spots celebrated as masterpieces, such as Apple's "1984," could arguably be considered great art but horrible marketing (it turned the massively compelling qualities of the first mouse and graphical computer interface into a creative abstraction, and left the actual work of selling Macintoshes to the remainder of the budget). The sales successes of those brilliantly creative spots from last year still linger, don't they? Quick, name one.

"I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information," said David Ogilvy back when it was OK to admit that marketing was intended to sell; better yet, he also said, "If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative." Bob Garfield spent 25 years reviewing ads in this magazine based on that premise, and when he retired last year he noted that the agency world had yet to reach the same conclusion. "I continue to be awed and humbled by the best of what the industry produces," he wrote in his final column, "but I also think billions of client dollars every year are being squandered by narcissists, con men, naifs and a number of blithering morons."

We'll celebrate the best of the worst this week, though the idiocy goes on all year long. Really smart agency people benefit from the dumb idea that brands are based on creative ideas, and I truly believe they promote them out of mistaken conviction more than outright conniving. Marketers (like you and me) drink the Kool-Aid, which gets served up in a variety of awards and contests, like this magazine's recent Agency/Creative Agency of the Year. Wieden & Kennedy won the honors for, among other things, creating a faux relationship between Levi's and a struggling town in Pennsylvania; shooting pretty arrangements of Christmas lights for Target ; and putting George Washington in a Dodge Charger to, well, charge the British.

Where was one iota of information in any of this? It was gloriously creative, perhaps prompting recognition and laughter, but those qualities are just as easily triggered by car wrecks on the side of the road (or by fart jokes). They didn't tell consumers anything that mattered, instead leaving that heavy lifting to other, less sexy marketing efforts. The Old Spice campaign was a notable exception, which worked because it linked a clutter-busting ad with hefty in-store promos to a goal of getting added to moms' weekly shopping lists. Promoting those sales was very sexy.

Yesterday's Super Bowl ads were, without such an exception, more of the same. I can remember the spot with the cute kid dressed as Darth Vader, but I can't tell you the car it promoted. The singing cowboy was funny. I know I shook my head at certain times like you did, but I can't remember why. But, while ad folks are giving themselves lots of high-fives and readying pitches to sell more creative to brands, all I can think is that they're perpetuating a curse on brands.

We're all in on it, actually, whether as active participants or willing victims. Only last week, Gap, which has relied for years on using arty, creative advertising to distract consumers from its tired stores, uninspired staff, generic clothes, and a pricing strategy intended to self-destruct the brand, decided to address this failed strategy by ... wait for it ... swapping ad agencies, hiring an ad guy to run its marketing, and creating a new "global creative center" in New York so it can come up with yet more creative nonsense. The media covered it like it was news instead of a cruel practical joke on its shareholders.

We've known for over 50 years that creative isn't synonymous with smart, and that it can't solve the shortcomings of operations, failures of offering, or imperfections of product or service performance. Yet we still fete Madison Avenue's Lords of Reality Distortion for confusing marketing with art. Brands don't need creative ideas (or any of the innovating nonsense that confuses content and substance, substitutes medium for message, or measures virtual participation for real behaviors); brands need business propositions that are better, smarter, more useful, relevant and ultimately more valuable than those of the competition. Then, and only then, does creative matter, and only insomuch that it helps communicate information.

Just step back from the buzz for a moment today and ask yourself a simple question: Lots of brands spent lots of money to tee up viewership leading up to, during and after yesterday's game. How many used that unique soapbox to give consumers any information that warranted the build-up or their attention? If your answer is that advertising on the Super Bowl isn't supposed to sell stuff -- but rather participate in a big event, cause brand recognition or whatever -- you're allowing yourself to be distracted by creative. If your advertising isn't supposed to sell, you're not supposed to pay for it.

Still, we'll rate, discuss and celebrate the most creative spots and campaigns. I bet this week's buzz will move some brands to consider advertising on next year's Super Bowl and affirm for many others the premise that great creative is the driver of great advertising.

The curse continues.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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