Superbowl Advertising – Entertainment, Not Business-Worthy

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The Superbowl is no longer merely the sporting event it used to be. It has gradually, over the years, and especially the four decades of its existence, become the definitive cultural event of our age, at least in this country, the United States. This event has got so thoroughly hyped over these decades, that anticipation, not only of the actual game, but anticipation of the pre-game show, and the half-time show, and the advertising have begun to claim as much interest as the actual sporting event itself.

Let us first look at the sporting event itself, the American football game finals. Unlike baseball and basketball, the other premier American sports, where not only the final outcome, but several layers of match-ups leading up to the final are all decided by the best result of not one, but seven matches! It is a single game. The teams that are playing may have played before, and one might have won handily in earlier skirmishes, but this may have no bearing on the outcome on this stage.

There are few games where contingential factors play a greater role, where actual skill can be trumped by sheer psychological pressure, injuries, wind, moisture, temperature, familiarity with the stadium, the relatively unpredictable bounce and wobbles of the peculiarly shaped ball, the psychological states of players, all can conspire to give the prize to the less talented or the less capable team.

And yet this single event, perhaps because it is only a single event, has become, not only the premier sporting event of this country, it has become the premier media event in the country, shown in hundreds of countries, and a unique showcase of American popular culture. And this pre-eminence has given the event a glow that makes players, coaches, performers, advertisers, agencies, and organizers, perhaps feel more self-important that the event actually deserves. Just think of it, this single event accounts for almost nine billion dollars of spending!

Having said that, Superbowl XLI has now come and gone, providing the entertainment that people were paying for, with money, emotional involvement, and attention. Superbowl XLI advertising has also come and gone, but we can be sure that most of it did NOT fulfill the purpose for which companies were paying heavily for it, increasing market-share for their respective products.

I noticed 53 commercials altogether, seven 60″ spots, 45 30″ spots, and one 15″ second spot. So many of them were funny, some were even hilarious, but most of them were so busy entertaining, that they forgot to identify their brand properly, and what was most shocking was that almost all of them failed to provide any reason to switch from a competitive brand.

This isn’t funny. The cost of each second of these spots was about $80 thousand. This means that the average 30″ second spot cost the advertiser about $2.4 million. And of course the 60″ spots cost them almost $5 million. And this doesn’t even include the cost of producing these special Superbowl commercials, which could cost another cool $1 million.

I could not help getting the feeling that Superbowl advertising is less about business than an ego trip for the Advertising people at the advertisers and at their ad agencies, each addressing not the prospect, but their peers and competitors in the advertising industry, so that they get some bragging time within the community.

That depressing notion was followed by and even more horrifying thought – that the people who made and approved these commercials were so jaded in a culture of entertainment, that they had forgotten the purpose of advertising investments, and were blindly developing and producing advertising that was draining their financial resources so wantonly, as though they were keeping the faucet running.

In the following articles, I will focus more closely on the companies who spent the most money advertising at this Superbowl, and speak in greater detail about the content of their advertising.

But for now, I must use the overview I got from a big-picture analysis of all the commercials featured in this Superbowl, to make some observations about the US advertising industry in general.

The companies and agencies that developed and approved all this Superbowl advertising seem to have lost sight of the purpose for which they are making, and are being allowed to make, these enormous investments in advertising. Business is the most accountable function in our world today. There are shareholders who have made investments in these companies based on the expectation that these companies will accomplish better results than their competitors with lower investments.

Their Boards of Directors are accountable to their shareholders to ensure that the management they select to run these companies will likewise be responsible and accountable. Indeed, this is precisely why the compensation of top management has itself been going through the roof, because these top managements are expected to deliver significant increments in profits on a sustainable basis, year in and year out, year after year.

In the midst of all this accountability, how can these advertisers spend so much so irresponsibly? How can they even consider airing commercials that cannot be reasonably expected to effect conversions of their competitors’ customers to their own brands? How can they even imagine paying such stratospheric rates demanded by this peak media event of the year? Could it be that the advertising profession, and it practitioners, don’t really understand the relationship of their function to the bottom lines of their respective companies?

I have long feared this, but the advertising at this Superbowl has demonstrated, beyond any doubt, that there is little if any consideration of accountability going into the decision-making processes that led to the selection of these commercials, and even less to the approval of these media rates for airing them. Our advertising industry is still infatuated with the appearance of ‘cleverness’ in advertising, instead of being concerned and focused upon the likelihood of effecting conversion, which must be the primary reason for advertising investments of this order of magnitude.

write by gene schuler

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