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Dominic Mills 

Super Bowl & the art of going big, plus Pornhub’s philanthropy play

Super Bowl & the art of going big, plus Pornhub’s philanthropy play

Dominic Mills delves into the phenomena of Super Bowl advertising and mourns the death of satire (again)

This time next week either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Kansas City Chiefs will be celebrating victory in the U.S Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, dozens of advertisers will be wondering if the $5.5 million or so a 30-second spot cost  — a price broadly unchanged from 2020 — was worth it.

Whilst TV executives will be studying the viewing figures, to see if the medium still has a role at the centre of mass culture — millions combine viewing with a backyard party for family and friends — or if it is being bacon-sliced away by technological and cultural change.

Unless you're a fan of American football or have been in the U.S when Super Bowl is on, it’s hard to understand its hold on the nation’s psyche or the way in which the mainstream media dissects and discusses the ads.

Here, for example, is CNBC showing previews of the ads, as and when it can get ahold of them. You can’t imagine that on Sky.

In advertising terms, the Super Bowl is often compared to the Christmas season in the UK, a time when advertisers put their best foot forward — a showcase for the industry also, if you like — and the population engage with and even talk about the ads, as opposed to not paying a blind bit of attention.

In fact, that is about as far as similarities go. In the UK, Christmas advertising is all about consumption now — buy this, buy that, spend money on this today — and is dominated by retailers. Success can generally be judged within weeks as sales figures are published.

The Super Bowl is different. It is about brand-building rather than immediate consumption, and advertisers tend to be across the category spectrum — cars, financial services, beer, snacks, detergents, soft drinks and so on.

But if you stand back, there’s a general uniformity about Super Bowl advertising, since any two of these three conditions are usually present:

a) The brand wraps itself in the American flag

b) The brand spends big money on a celebrity

c) The brand tries for humour.

This year’s Super Bowl is different however, taking place as it does against both the pandemic — backyard parties therefore a no-no — and a society riven by racial, geographical and economic division, as well as by culture wars.

What constitutes funny? And patriotism, where one citizen’s celebration of the flag is seen by another as oppression? Compared to Christmas, navigating these swirling waters is a picnic. But one misstep in the U.S and cancel culture looms.

It’s not a surprise then that many traditional big-name brands have chosen to sit this year out — including the likes of Budweiser, Coke, Pepsi, Ford and Kia.

I imagine they are following a sensible rule: if you can’t think of anything sensible or meaningful to say, stay schtum.

Or, to put it another way, go big or go home.

But what they see as a threat, others, including what you might call ‘new-economy’ brands, have stepped forward. They include names like Fiverr (a platform for freelancers), Door Dash (food delivery), Indeed (jobs board), Intuit (tax software), Mercari, (e-commerce), E-trade (financial trading) and DraftKings (fantasy sports and betting).

It’s no coincidence surely, that these are the types of advertiser that have all had ‘good’ pandemics.

I wonder therefore, if what we are seeing is a passing of the baton, in which an older generation of advertisers gives way to a newer one. In five years’ time, perhaps, we won’t even notice the absence of Bud, Coke, Pepsi and Ford.

But the newcomers can learn a lot from the history of Super Bowl ads by the established brands.

I’m thinking here of Chrysler’s Clint Eastwood 120-second spectacular from 2012 — which would cost around $20m today — a period also of societal fracture and, in the wake of the financial crash, economic difficulty.

Far from avoiding these difficulties, the ad meets them head on, drawing on the parallel of the half-time talk.

“How do we come from behind? How do we come together?, “ he asks. “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right up again. Yeah, it’s half-time America. And our second half is about to begin.”

You can’t even guess it’s a Chrysler ad until the end, and it’s all the more powerful for that.

And that, I think, is what you call going big.

Beyond satire

It was the American comedian, Tom Lehrer who first pronounced the death of satire, on the occasion that Henry Kissinger, orchestrator of the illegal bombing raids that devastated Cambodia, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since then, satire has risen from its deathbed — think Armando Ianucci and The Thick of It or Spitting Image — but there are always people happy to hammer a fresh nail into its coffin.

Melania Trump is one example. I was astonished to discover that her self-founded charity is called Be Best and is designed to protect young people against cyber-bullying. Is she cynical, ignorant or simply trying to send a message to Donald?

Now we have Pornhub which, as this story details, has a new campaign promoting sustainability.

Now, it’s not the campaign itself that particularly bothers me —  although yes, it’s faintly ridiculous that it should jump on the environmental bandwagon — so much as the fact that the ad has been produced by Pornhub Cares, which is its self-described ‘philanthropy division’ — sorry, there’s just something about it that requires inverted commas.

A ‘philanthropy division’? This feels like an act of near-supreme cynicism, one that could be topped only by Philip Morris buying the naming rights to a lung cancer ward.

On this issue we could turn to George Orwell, who devised the term ‘doublespeak’ to describe the use of language to conceal or divert us away from the truth.  “If thought corrupts language, then language corrupts thought,” he said.

Looking at Pornhub’s ‘philanthropy division’, I wonder if Pornhub staff have themselves become corrupted by this use of language and have allowed themselves to believe that, really, they’re doing good.

On the other hand, thinking of ‘doublespeak’, what is the philanthropy division other than Pornhub’s in-house marketing team, whose job it is to think-up these eye-catching stunts.

So…what is it that they do again?

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