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January 29, 2015
Advertising’s Biggest Bowl is Too Mushy
Why the “Big Game” isn’t as Super as it could be
Before I started working in advertising, watching the Super Bowl was a big deal, and mostly because of the ads. If I was at a party, we would collectively stop chatting when a commercial break was about to happen. Really, the prospect of a surprising and cool ad was that enticing.
These days, much of what we love, and hate, about Super Bowl advertising pervades the rest of our business, too:
Marketers now blow their wad on teaser spots, sneak previews, and social media-fueled pre-game buzz. Advertising thrives on an element of surprise. We like to use the “big reveal” when showing spots in creative presentations to clients. Although I get why there’s perceived added value in pre-game PR, I think our industry has subtracted the fun. By the time the spots air during the game, there’s no surprise for anyone who’s been paying even a bit of attention. (A caveat: Each year, there’s always one brilliant exception to this rule. But that’s not enough.)
The Super Bowl is rarely a launch point for a long-term campaign. Celebrities, talking animals, over-the-top special effects, and crazy cinematography often supersede an idea that could be extended for a long time. And during the rest of the year, I see way too many people refer to one commercial or ad as a new “campaign.” Does anyone have the patience to nurture an idea that’s extendable beyond a month?
Public opinion dictates the day’s winners and losers. For decades, USA Today has gathered a few focus groups together to rate the spots in real-time. This system influences the general perception of a spot’s relative success. But the dials they use to measure people’s immediate reactions are the same type consultants use to measure and tweak the effectiveness of a politician’s messaging and debate performance. That appeal to a low common denominator ought to tell you the quality of opinions you’re dealing with.
Your top 5 favorite spots will be someone else’s bottom 5. No one’s right, and no one’s wrong. Advertising will always be subjective, no matter how much data you throw at it. Did any client really intend to spend $4 million on a stinker of a spot? No. But it happens, and not just on Super Bowl Sunday.
Many bloggers, pundits, and journalists will have pre-rated their favorites based on watching spots alone on their laptops. The collective wisdom (or lack thereof) of social media real-time reaction will make some of those private prognostications look ill-timed and ill-informed. It’s kind of like watching a movie at home and being convinced it isn’t funny, when sitting in a theater full of laughing people might affect your opinion because of the contagious enthusiasm.
All spots are expensive, but failures even more so. Super Bowl spots are high risk/high reward for everyone involved. A CMO may lose a job because their brand’s spot finished in the bottom 10 of some poll. An agency may get fired by the client, too. Sometimes it all comes down to what the client’s spouse or college buddies say about the spot at their game-watching party.

I forget the spots quickly. I suspect most people do. Every year I go to my local Ad Club’s panel discussion where the spots get dissected. They usually hold this event on the first Thursday after the game. I’ve forgotten most of the spots by then, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one. A few commercials will get re-airings in the coming weeks, but the novelty wears off fast without a bigger campaign following one spot. I think that’s too pervasive throughout the ad industry today.
Even the worst spots started as coveted assignments. Many non-advertising people watch these spots and say, “They paid how much for that??” But even bad commercials started out with good intentions. Just like all advertising. And plenty of great creatives go their entire careers without ever producing a Super Bowl commercial, or even being part of a concepting scrum for a spot. Hey, it happens.
#WhatAreThePointOfHashtagsIf50SuperBowlSpotsHaveThem. Yes, I’m one of those people you might find on Twitter Sunday feverishly sending snarky thoughts as quickly as they pop into my mind. And I may attempt to use a hashtag as directed by the spot. But if it’s fleeting, does it matter? A few brands are able to successfully incorporate a hashtag for the game, while many don’t succeed. Once again, a good idea gets ruined by so many copycats crowding the field.
When your team is playing, the game matters more than the ads. Take it from someone in Seattle.
Just as we can never predict the outcome of the game itself, I wish we’d get back to more of the mystique of Super Bowl advertising. Heck, our business could use some more surprise and delight all around. Maybe then more people would look forward to commercials and talk about ‘em not just for three hours, but all year long. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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