How Advertisers Blew the Super Bowl

The Rams failed to score a single touchdown in Super Bowl LIII. They’ll live to play another day. Imagine being one of 20 massive brands that, under the scrutiny of some 98 million eyeballs, flushed away $5 million each for 30 seconds of unmemorable advertising. Forget about blown calls. What’s the penalty for $100 million squandered on blown Super Bowl spots?

Having toiled as an ad guy for years, I say farewell to yet another Super Bowl with the usual mixture of relief, embarrassment, and revulsion. Does this circus really still need to exist? Was that bowl really super? Not so much. Let’s face it: The game, if not NFL football itself, has become the world’s biggest anachronism, a lumbering anomaly stuck in amber, increasingly outmoded in a newly woke world. Everywhere else, where content is always available on demand in shorter and shorter commercial-free serving sizes, the Super Bowl is perhaps the only platform left in media in which advertising is, theoretically at least, a feature, not a bug. It’s a three-hour spectacle larded with Madison Avenue marbling like a force-fed goose. For advertisers, a Super Bowl spot used to be an opportunity to compete for national relevance, a chance to win the water-cooler championship and see their products restored to the center of the national conversation. These days, unfortunately, the following Monday is often a day of atonement.

“It’s not every day you get to play roulette with $7 million,” the CMO of a major consumer brand that ran a spot during the game confessed to me. “Only the buzz dissipates a lot faster than other forms of gambling, and the odds of winning are twice as high. Never do so many spend so much for so little.”

Since this year’s game was so entirely lacking in drama or distinction, a dumpster Fyre stuffed with burning cash, here’s a quick recap of a few things I took note of between the first responders and food porn spots: Cardi B gets paid to drink Pepsi; choking on cashews makes one dream about Audis; Christina Applegate is the mother of three M&Ms; 2 Chainz does his own expensesMr. Peanut will give his own life rather than let A-Rod eat kale chips; the absence of corn syrup apparently makes one average beer more appealing than its average competitor; Charlie Sheen is still alive; Amazon can afford Harrison Ford; deploying celebrity characters that have nothing to do with beer is a dubious way to sell beer; and even Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, just like everyone else, have their price.

You know you’re having a slow Super Bowl when even Donald Trump isn’t tweeting about it.

Eat like Andy, really? Who gave permission for this violation? And who cares? Certainly not the kids I was watching with. They just saw a weird dude with weird hair tucking into a burger. What an odd artifact to spend $5 million–plus revisiting. Surely there had to be a more newsworthy play, a point made clear by the yawning thud that followed. Speaking of weird dudes with weird hair: You know you’re having a slow Super Bowl when even Donald Trump isn’t tweeting about it. POTUS gave more ink to Tiger Woods.

Meanwhile, most of the ads were already available on YouTube, a long-standing model that has the effect of making the game even less interesting. “My family had already watched so many ads in the buildup to Sunday that they were more interested in playing Fortnite than watching the fortunes advertisers had spent,” former Gap CMO Craig Brommers told me.

Of course, there’s so much more than advertising to speak of when discussing the Super Bowl. The Patriots won, again, as you may have heard. Tom Brady now has more jewelry than Cardi B. Adam Levine took off his shirt. U.S. Senator Ben Sasse tweet-pleaded for Levine to put the shirt back on. Romodamus had little to predict, as nothing really happened; Belichick set back hoodie sales. And perhaps most entertaining, the game, the ads, and the culture came together as they’re supposed to when the National Corn Association went to war against suddenly squishy Bud Light (“@Bud LightAmerica’s corn farmers are disappointed in you”), thus setting the stage for the NFL’s next political debate: the role of corn syrup in American beer. Who cares about politically incorrect names, concussions, CTE, and sideline protests? It’s all about fructose.

The clear-cut winner of Super Bowl LIII was, of course, Skittles, which chose to skip the big game entirely and put on an actual, invitation-only Broadway musical starring Dexter’s Michael C. Hall. It wasn’t exactly Hamilton, but it did manage to produce a true Super Bowl first: a self-aware song about how bad Super Bowl ads are—“Advertising Ruins Everything”—proving once again that well-delivered irony almost always scores.1.2K claps

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