Super Bowl Redux, Redux Pt.1

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I’ve written for the past few years now on my utter befuddlement over Super Bowl advertising.

We live in an age when making a connection between the fleeting exposure of mass-market awareness and subsequent sales keeps getting harder, less dependable, and certainly more expensive. Yet some bold, damn-the-torpedoes brand marketers seem committed to not just thinking otherwise, but putting their employer’s/client’s money where their, er, bravado is.

We’re about to witness the annual kabuki drama:

  • Companies will announce that they’ve bought time on the show
  • The ad trades will do stories on the total expenditure, and "leak" creative
  • Some companies will run ads prior to the show, promoting the upcoming spots
  • Most all of the advertisers will develop ads intended to 1) shock, and/or b) amuse
  • The ads will run, and stories written ranking them by qualitative consumer reviews
  • The ad trades will follow-up with stories giving us expert analysis of the ad creative

And then, we’ll all fahgetaboutit until the same time next year.

"Jane, stop this crazy machine!"

Super Bowl spots have evolved into a special breed of communications. They’re mostly one-timers intended to make a splash in one specific context, designed based less on actual products or services, and more in relation to one another. Each spot hopes to differentiate itself primarily by being different.

Think of dinosaur species, forced to evolve into strange shapes in order to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. 

With the exception of the trailing tale of comments in the blathersphere, the recognition half-life among consumers is just shy of 24 hours, maybe less. And it’s usually awareness of a joke, or an insult: you’ve likely yourself said to someone the day after the game, "I liked that spot where that guy did that funny thing. What was that for again?"

So why do companies pay millions for the privilege of airing these rare, exotic, doomed breeds, in hopes of somehow winning in a brief, artificial, arbitrary ecosystem?

Branding, of course.

While consumers are busy misquoting or forgetting the spots, companies make the case for their expenditures by adding together viewer numbers, articles, blog mentions, video mash-ups, chat room comments, and all other available snippets of attention, however brief or imprecise. It’s this "buzz" that somehow promotes brand and, therefore, warrants the cost.

And, in some alternate universe, dinosaurs avoided extinction.

Super Bowl spots are the most extreme and rarefied example of the glorious bane of brand marketing: the lack of accountability.

Sure, everyone talks about metrics and measurement these days, but what we usually get are ever-more complicated equations intended to prove what we hope is the value of branding, versus identifying what that value — beyond simple awareness — might be.

And that’s how we get to this incredible moment of broad exposure…the Super Bowl…millions of expectant eyes trained on television screens…ready to actually pay attention to the commercials…this one time…and what do they see?

Fart jokes. Bad puns. Scantily clad models. 

You’d think that if this one special moment of exposure were to have any value in today’s marketplace, it would have to reach beyond the traditionally hazy, imprecise benefits of branding.

In tomorrow’s essay, I’ll give you this dim bulb’s ideas on what that reach might be.

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