Super Bowl commercials take the U.S. pulse in seconds

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    LOS ANGELES — The Super Bowl, which apparently is some sort of sporting event on Feb. 7,
    is a unique media happening: a moment when the nation comes together to
    adjudicate the meaning of advertising and to ratify its absurd,
    over-scaled importance in our culture.

    Yes, advertising has multiplexed and gone online,
    become socialized, product-integrated and user-generated. But the Super
    Bowl still creates the biggest single audience of the year. How
    advertisers choose to speak to that audience via commercials is the
    nearest thing we have to an instant cultural personality test. Don’t
    look now, U.S.A., but you’ve been profiled.

    There will be a few hours on Feb. 8,
    I predict, when we look at one another and wonder about the wisdom of
    turning over so much of our psychic geography to these villains who
    just want to sell us stuff. Who put these voices in our heads? But then
    we’ll be back at the office, trying to watch GoDaddy.com’s
    too-hot-for-TV spot with Danica Patrick.

    This is one of those moments when advertising
    reveals itself at the center of our culture and zeitgeist and is worthy
    of deeper thought. And the news is not good.

    Before culture and even before sports, the Super
    Bowl is about business. For weeks, the advertising community has been
    buzzing about which companies are in the show (Doritos, Denny’s, Dockers) and which are not (General Motors, Ford, FedEx).
    Is it significant that the only domestic carmaker represented this year
    is the thoroughly troubled Chrysler, while upstart foreign nameplates
    such as Kia and Hyundai are shoveling vast amounts of cash through CBS’
    transom? (Answer: yes.) What does it mean for the beverage business
    that Pepsi is riding the pine while Coke is still in the Big Game?

    When enormous, category-defining incumbents like FedEx
    skip the Super Bowl, it’s hard not to take that as a sign of decline,
    or retreat. Super Bowl ad buys thus constitute a sort of futures market
    of corporate America.

    Meanwhile, the price of a 30-second spot — estimated to be about $2.5 million to $2.8 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence, down from 2009’s average of more than $3 million
    — has come to be regarded as reliable an index of economic strength as
    durable goods or balance of trade. This is not a forecasting method Milton Friedman remotely anticipated.

    As to whether the venerable, distinctly old-school
    Super Bowl buy is worth it in the redrawn media landscape, it depends.
    In the last two decades, the costs have accelerated well past the
    growth of the audience, which totaled about 100 million in 2009,
    according to Nielson. But the marketing return on investment equation
    is more subtle than eyeballs divided by dollars.

    Companies with good “creative” — industry shorthand
    for the cleverness and quality of an ad’s production — will enjoy
    monumental word of mouth as America collectively judges, “Idol”-style,
    who had the best commercial. Dozens of news outlets will give users a
    chance to vote and give critics a chance to pick and pan. Buzz is, in a
    way, priceless.

    Marketers have learned by now to leverage Super Bowl
    buys with a coordinated seek-and-persuade campaign online, where the
    commercials will enjoy a longer shelf life and wag even more tongues.

    Last year, online views of Super Bowl spots tallied
    99.5 million, Advertising Age reported. That’s almost exactly the
    number of viewers of the televised event. In other words, marketers who
    geared up had the opportunity to double their marketing return on
    investment.

    The online stock trading service E-Trade, for
    example, began posting its Super Bowl spots featuring a talking baby on
    YouTube in the days leading up to the big game in 2009.

    E-Trade? Talking baby? You remember that, don’t you? You bet you do.

    Culture critics might look at Super Bowl commercials
    in a less-generous light, however. The event’s marquee advertising
    tends to scrape the bottom of whatever barrel in which we keep our
    collective wits.

    Last year, Frito-Lay sponsored a contest in which
    regular folks could try their hand at making a commercial for its
    Doritos snack chips. If anybody could beat Budweiser and Coke in a
    viewer popularity contest, they could win a million dollars. The prize
    went to Indiana brothers Joe and Dave Herbert. Their spot ends with an office worker hurling a soothsaying orb into the crotch of his boss.

    The most Tivo‘d ad of last year’s Super Bowl was the GoDaddy.com’s ad “Enhancement,” with Danica Patrick, featuring buxom actresses in a courtroom denying they’d been “enhanced.” You stay classy, Super Bowl.

    Reliably, the Super Bowl commercials will generate
    controversy. The right-wing, anti-gay Focus on the Family organization
    this year managed to get an ad past the producers’ usual prohibition
    against controversial-cause advertising. The commercial will soft-pedal
    the organization’s strident politics by featuring Heisman
    Trophy-winning, Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. The ad will promote the theme “Celebrate family. Celebrate life.” That will be good for some ink.

    And, since nobody else seems to have raised this
    issue yet, I will: Not a single Super Bowl commercial speaks directly
    to the Latino market. This seems a grievous slight against an audience
    that represents an awful lot of money and potential goodwill for
    advertisers.

    To take this year’s roster of advertisers as a sort
    of fractured mirror of America, consider an abbreviated list:
    Anheuser-Busch, Audi, Boost Mobile, Bridgestone, Cars.com, CareerBuilder (which is part-owned by Tribune Co., the parent company of the Los Angeles Times), Coke, Denny’s, Dockers, Hyundai, Kia, Mars, Paramount, Universal, Disney and Unilever’s Dove men’s care line.

    The composite Super Bowl viewer is thus a beery,
    junk-food-eating, unemployed guy yakking away on his cellphone while
    driving his foreign car to the movies.

    Enjoy the game.

    (c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.

    Visit the Los Angeles Times on the Internet at http://www.latimes.com/

    Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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