Thursday, February 9, 2006

Super Bowl: Your Ad Here

There were streaking sheep, cute little Clydesdales, cave men, Muppets, and monkeys. Oh yeah, there was a football game too.

The Super Bowl has been a high-profile staple of American culture for four decades now, but increasingly the phenomenon is the advertising that goes with it. And I don’t just say that because I teach communications. Local and national surveys confirm that more than half of the people who tune in do so at least as much for the ads as they do for the game. In fact, one study I read reported that 20 percent of people tune in primarily for the ads, as if the game is irrelevant.

I felt that way especially this year, having been invited to a Super Bowl party at Hanon-McKendry, a well-regarded Grand Rapids advertising agency. The “Ad Bowl” they arranged pitted myself and some academic colleagues from Calvin and Aquinas colleges against the professional advertising creatives at the firm. It was a fun and intense competition to rank the ads and see whether the pros or profs prevailed by comparing out picks against the consumers’ favorites as listed the next day in USA Today.

They had decked out their conference room with a small-scale football field made out of astro turf. Competitors say at tables on the field and watched a big screen TV. Others who were spectators sat in bleachers in the back of the room. When the game would stop and commercials would start, a referee dressed in black and white stripes would bow the whistle to get our attention. We would view the ads and raise one of three cards to give our rating of the ads based on the criteria of memorable, compelling, and differentiating. A “touchdown” had all three elements; a “safety” one of the three, and a “delay of game” had none of the desired attributes.

It was a good thing there was a football game to give us a chance to get more food and use the rest room.

So I know what you’re thinking: who won? Well, it was close for a while, but the Steelers prevailed in the end. What? You weren’t thinking about that? Of course not. Actually, the profs and pros were pretty close. The professors listed as our top three the ad featuring the young Clydesdale horse who gets secret help from older horses to pull the famous Budweiser wagon. We also liked the humor and production of the Fed Ex ad featuring a cave man who gets stomped out after using a pterodactyl instead of FedEx to send a package. Finally, we liked the Dove ad featuring little girls with an important message about self esteem and true beauty. The pros picked the ad featuring the streaking sheep, and also the Fed Ex and Dove ads. And, according to the USA Today poll, the profs were closer—the national consumer poll ranked the ad with the secret fridge number one, the young Clydesdale and the FedEx cave man as the top three.

In the end, what I found most interesting was not who won the football game or the ad ranking competition, but what the total collection of ads and this annual spectacle says about our society.

For one thing, as annoying as ads can be at times, we need to appreciate them for being the financial engine that allows us to watch content without paying for it. We pay for the TV and the equipment, but there’s still a lot of content out there that we would have to pay for were it not for advertisers.

It’s also interesting how ads have changed beyond mere announcements about new products and their features to being entertainment spectacles in their own right. Consumers expect ads to be funny. These mini 30-second movies often don’t mention a product at all, they simply try to introduce or maintain a brand and create an image, a feeling, and a loyalty toward that brand. And consumers expect to be entertained.

Given that expectation, I always wonder about the value of ads to the advertisers. There’s a lot of debate in the profession about tracking ads and their effect. But most of it is whether people like the ads or remember them, not about whether they were persuaded to buy something. This was a point I made in two news interviews I did with an area TV station and radio station after the game. But the USA Today poll and most other discussions of the ads just look at whether consumers liked them. It assumes sales will follow. That’s a big assumption for $2.5 million, the going rate for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

When you sit back and think about the whole exhibition of commercial television, this barrage of ads and content, you realize that this is really not about advertisers funding content to benefit society. And networks don’t produce content to entertain us. No. Networks are selling US to advertisers. Advertisers pay a lot in order to send us a message. We are the commodities here, not the spectators. With more people watching for the ads than the game, I wonder why the Budweiser doesn’t charge the NFL a fee for attracting an audience to the game. Or why WE as consumers don’t charge advertisers a fee for our attention.

I’d watch a football game and as many ads they want to show me for far less than $2.5 million per 30 seconds. Give my agent a call, Budweiser, and we’ll work out a deal. But I should tell you up front that I’m charging extra for streaking sheep.