Super Bowl

The Industry's Super Bowl Stumble

Creating Ads to Appeal to the Greatest Number of Viewers Assures Content That Humiliates Our Profession

By Published on .

Prepare to spend this month being bombarded by the campaigns leading up to ads on Super Bowl Sunday in February. Commercial time during the broadcast is sold out, with some of the 63 30-second slots going for as much as $3.5 million. Apps will let viewers vote on and recommend their favorites. Every ad expert will start reviewing and ranking the spots before the game is even over. The Super Bowl is the greatest night of the year for advertising.

No, it's not. By producing and celebrating Super Bowl commercials, we reinforce the stereotype of ads as hype and artificial entertainment. The Super Bowl isn't a great moment for advertising. It's a humiliating stumble.

I know the audience numbers are huge, and that creating an event out of airing the commercials helps ensure that viewers won't skip out on them. And it's not overly difficult to make the return-on-investment case when the metrics are squishy -- "likes," "views," "memorability" or winning an opinion poll -- and the laws of physics don't apply. I've read more than one report about high viewership and a subsequently good sales year concluding that the former caused the latter, as if funny advertising can also take credit for the rising and setting of the sun. It's easy to claim that the campaigns work when it's impossible to prove that they don't.

The Super Bowl is a rotten showcase for advertising, for three basic reasons:

It demands lowest-common-denominator content. The audience is so large and diverse that to make those magic ROI calculations work, the ads have to appeal to as many people as possible. This year we'll get the same cavalcade of fart jokes, scantily-clad women and the other stalwarts of slapstick humor that have graced previous broadcasts. For an industry that prides itself on creativity, the requirements of Super Bowl success seem almost destructively narrow.

It creates a self-conscious ad experience. David Ogilvy once said, "A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself," and he was right. Ads aren't little movies, so reviewing them as such has nothing to do with their efficacy as commercial tools. Comparing them to one another also relies on criteria that encourages base content. Ad competitions are fine for industry-insider events, but they have nothing to do with selling anything.

It's not really social in a way that is useful to brands over time. Use an app to pick a celeb, vote for a slogan, enter a contest to win something. None of this is new thinking, and it denigrates the best uses of social engagement while usurping its mechanics. The mandate is wrong: A campaign to support an artificial ad event is going to be similarly ersatz.

It's easy to get caught up in the hype and self-love of the event. Think of all those brand types and their agencies enjoying schwag tickets to the game and the reporting infrastructure set up to make it seem worthwhile before they get back to their offices. Nobody is backing away from it yet, but I believe that this year's Super Bowl will be another opportunity for advertising, as a profession, to lose more credibility. Putting on a circus isn't the best way to get the world to take you seriously. It's the worst possible commercial for the commercial-making business.

It will be fun to watch, though.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKINis president of Baskin Associates, Inc., a marketing decisions consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter at @jonathansalem.
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