Why Animals Speak in Super Bowl Ads

How Rating Systems Have Ruined the Creative

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari
Over the years, the Super Bowl ads have become quite a paradox for ad agencies, and they probably haven't even realized it.

Here it is:

Ad agencies love having an ad appear in the Super Bowl.

Ad agencies hate submitting their work to a focus group.

Why is that a paradox? Let's remind ourselves about why ad agencies hate focus groups. It's because a focus group is an extremely artificial environment in which to see an ad, where the viewers are attentively awaiting presentation of the commercials that they will judge.

Huh, come to think of it, that's exactly what's going to happen on Sunday night during the Super Bowl. But, instead of a dozen people sitting around a conference room table, a 100 million people in the U.S. will be sitting around their living rooms, attentively awaiting presentation of the commercials that they will judge.

This isn't how people view TV advertising in their homes during the other 364 days of the year. Typically, people watch programs, ballgames and movies trying to avoid ads at every turn. Agencies combat this by creating compelling messages that will maintain viewers' interest, to the point that they don't get up and get another snack, go to the bathroom, or (god forbid) fast forward through the break. When was the last time you watched "24," thinking, "I can't wait to see what Budweiser's going to do in the next break"?

The Super Bowl is different. We can't wait to see the ads.

How did we get here?

As fragmentation over the past three decades gobbled up the ratings of other broad-reaching programming, the Super Bowl has survived as the country's largest single TV audience event in the country. It's become a de facto national holiday, even causing some school systems to delay, or even call off classes on the following Monday. Back when the Super Bowl was in its teens, ambitious marketers started using the Super Bowl ad to make a statement in front of a giant audience. And over the years, while many of the games were lacking, the ads weren't. For several years, the ads were more memorable than the game. People started to pay more attention to the ads, anticipating what clever idea might come next.

The press picked up on this, writing stories about which advertisers would be in the Super Bowl, which ones were out, and what they were spending. They previewed the ads, reported on "banned" ads, wrote stories about the best and worst ads, and have now set up on-line ratings that are published the day after the game.

Ah, the ratings. It's the ratings that have ruined Super Bowl ads.

It's a useless, possibly dangerous exercise, and likely the reason why the ads have been waning over the past decade. The plethora of day after, online ratings are to blame, because they've set up a seemingly statistically valid measurement, based on what the typical American viewer "likes."

What people "like" is pretty predictable. Cute babies and animals top the list. If you can make them talk, even better. Americans are also suckers for seeing a guy getting hit in the crotch. Can't get enough of that. Heck, "America's Funniest Videos" created years of programming around it. Last year, two amateur ad guys were smart enough to know it, too, when they created an ad for ... corn chips, I think. They won a million dollars ... for a crotch shot. This is how far we've fallen.

Because of the attention to the ratings, Super Bowl ads are now dangerously close to a series of Saturday Night Live skits, designed to bombastically amuse the viewer. While I would admit that an ad's biggest crime may be to be forgotten, Super Bowl ads have become a contest where each competitor sees who can out-gross, out-animal-talk or out-uncomfortable-body-part the next ad. The hype and ratings have continued to erode the quality and integrity of ideas.

What's the remedy?

Ignore the ratings. Avoid the clich├ęs.

Resist using talking babies, cute animals and crotch shots -- well, unless you're selling diapers, pet food or jock straps.

Go back to listening to consumers before the Super Bowl.

Gather human insights relevant to what you're selling.

Stop shouting at your audience and communicate with them.

Create an arresting, yet original idea that's worthy of your brand.

Integrate it into multi-layered platform that extends beyond the thirty-second ad.

And try to forget that it's being rated by the world's largest focus group.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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