Superbowl: it's the anticipation that’s the thing

04 Feb 2013  |  Dominic Mills 

There was a time, believe it or not (i.e. pre-YouTube) that your first opportunity to see any of the multi-million dollar ads made specifically for the Superbowl was during the game itself.

For journalists who would have to produce 1,000 words of finely-honed prose first thing the day after, that meant staying up to watch the game. The further west the game was played, the longer you'd have to stay up and the less time before deadline. Luckily the ads were usually better than the game.

But that, in itself, was part of the magic. Sure, you could pick up on the gossip beforehand, but it was that sense of shared excitement at the moment of the reveal - hundreds of millions watching something for the first time at the same time - that gave the occasion that something extra.

Now a simple Superbowl 2013 ads search on YouTube changes all that. Or you can go to one of dozens of sites like this. Even mainstream media outlets like NBC and USA Today devote acres of coverage to the ads.

Does it spoil the fun and the sense of drama? Maybe (although it makes writing this column easier, not least because I will have touched down in Asia around the time the game finishes).

But actually it's the whole point these days. In and of itself, a Superbowl ad shown to a mass Superbowl audience is only half a proposition. It's the buzz, the viewings and the chatter before and after that make up the other half.

The Superbowl (along with the Olympics, the World Cup, Coronations, Downton Abbey Christmas Specials etc) is held up as evidence that TV remains a mass-market tool beloved of advertisers. And it is.

But it's really only the hook around which everything else goes on. That's why so many of the ads (like Coke's 'Race' or Budweiser's 'Clydesdale') involve a pre-game participatory element or are designed to get a social media buzz going. Yes, some of that participatory stuff is rather feeble (who cares what Budweiser's Clydesdale foal is called), but the direction of travel is clear.

Anyway, given the price of Superbowl ads this year, you can hardly blame an advertiser for trying to maximise the bang/buck ratio by generating as much chatter as they can. This year the average cost of a 30-second spot is said to be between $3.8-$4m.

Indeed, I rather suspect the controversy around the VW 'Get Happy' ad, below, involving a Minnesotan who talks in Jamaican patois, may have been a somewhat cynical exercise to get talked about.

In fact that seems to be the strategy behind a significant number, from Sodastream (banned, as we speak, because it has a go at both Coke and Pepsi, and parodies a famous Pepsi ad too), to Mercedes (Kate Upton slathers soap all over the car) and Motorola (Megan Fox slathers soap all over herself).

This may explain the apparent rise of a sub-industry around Superbowl advertising: the teaser. Take a look at VW's, which features Jimmy Cliff in what looks suspiciously like a homage to Coke's "I'd like to teach the world to sing" (but a lot cheaper). Is that another attempt to get talked about?

It's all disappearing up itself, it seems to me.

At last, the ad industry punches its weight

At first glance, you could mistake the Advertising Association's Advertising Pays report on the contribution the industry makes to the economy as another bit of special-interest pleading directed to the business world at large: "come on, businesspeople, spend more money now!"

But that is to do it a disservice. Most of the focus on kick-starting the economy is on large infrastructure projects like HS2 (with its ludicrously long build-time and even longer payback).

But few people, least of all those who whisper in the Treasury's ear, think advertising can make a contribution. And it is this that the AA's report, using an econometric model built by Deloitte (without whom it would lack credibility), seeks to prove.

And not before time too. For whatever reasons, the ad industry has never really punched its weight in Whitehall, with the result that it's not taken as seriously as it should. I hear tell that when then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt addressed a Marketing Group of Great Britain dinner he didn't even mention advertising.

The report challenges a number of assumptions, the most interesting being that investment in advertising leads GDP growth when, for many years, it had been assumed to be the other way round.

Another is that £16bn of advertising spend (the current level) creates £100bn of GDP (or 7% of total GDP): a return of 6:1, which isn't bad by any measure, and no doubt more than HS2 will ever bring.

So there's lots of challenging stuff in there, and it seems the AA has found a sympathetic ear in current Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

But I can't help thinking their case would have been even better made had they also looked at the impact advertising makes on the wider employment force, this being an issue that resonates not only across Whitehall, but in society too. For example, how difficult would it be to prove the effect on employment of successful ad campaigns? Yeo Valley would be one example, John Lewis another.

Andrex: they've scraped the bottom

My wife thinks that only those with a scatological disposition (i.e. most men, young children) would be interested in this latest wheeze from Andrex.

I have a feeling the results will be packaged up in one of those ghastly PR 'surveys' which claim to throw light on modern Britain, but which are nothing of the kind.

I appreciate it must be tough for Andrex marketing staff to think of ways to generate consumer interest in the subject of toilet tissue (one creative once told me he spent weeks debating with his client whether they should make an ad about 'poke-through' tests).

And I appreciate that it's very on-trend to encourage participation and debate. But Andrex has sunk right to the bottom on this.

(The answer is fold, by the way). .

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