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
There will be a few hours on
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
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,
Is it significant that the only domestic carmaker represented this year
is the thoroughly troubled Chrysler, while upstart foreign nameplates
such as Kia and
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
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
— 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
To take this year’s roster of advertisers as a sort
of fractured mirror of America, consider an abbreviated list:
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.
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