Thursday, February 9, 2017

Super Bowl Ads Reveal Things About Us

(From the February 9, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

This past Sunday, millions of people watched the Super Bowl and the advertising spectacle that accompanied it. It turned out to be an extra exciting game, and the advertisements once again generated a lot of commentary.

But there is one thing people may have missed: they were watching reflections of themselves.

Media both creates and reflects culture. This is true of all forms of media, from fine art, to news, to entertainment, and advertising. Ads are ubiquitous and therefore high profile, particularly during the Super Bowl when they are not merely peripheral but often the focus for viewers.

While some people complain that there are too many ads in some cases, advertising is also valued. In addition to sponsoring much of the content we enjoy for free or reduced cost, ads have entertainment value, such as in the case of humorous or moving mini-stories in some ads. They are also seen as an art form, for their production value, technical skill and creativity. Ads are also seen to have a practical utility when they inform or educate about a product, service, or cause that is of current relevance to the viewer.

But while these are the values of ads to the public that sees them, of what value are they to the advertisers? This is a particularly important question in the context of the Super Bowl, for which a single national ad could cost as much as $5 million, just for the placement. For one, the Super Bowl is one of the last forums where a large audience can be reached at once. So advertisers pay out the big money for the simple ability to reach a mass audience. They also have objectives behind the ad messages, such as to rebuild or establish a reputation, to advance a cause, to maintain brand preference, and of course to launch a new product or sell something. There is also a little bit of showing off to the rest of the advertising community on a national stage.

But what does all of this say about us as a culture? I watched the ads this past weekend with that in mind. I also participated in a Twitter hashtag discussion with my Advertising and Public Relations students at Grand Valley State University, as well as alumni, professors and industry professionals who joined in. Here are a few of my observations. These insights may not be true of all individuals, but they are revealing about at least segments of the culture in which we live.

We are still a material society. The ads about luxury goods, particularly cars, had an obvious appeal to not just what we need but what we desire. Not all ads were for the luxurious, but it does show that there is a market among us interested in the finer things.

We have an increasing degree of nostalgia. While previous year’s Super Bowl ads tended toward childish or juvenile humor, this year had a lot of throwbacks. References to the Budweiser dog Spuds McKenzie and the theme song from the old TV show “Cheers” revealed an interesting longing for the past. Some were wondering if these references to content from years past would go over the heads of the often sought after “millennial” generation market. But perhaps that’s exactly why some advertisers used them—to let the slightly older folks know they’re still appreciated too. Some accused advertisers of running out of ideas. Others pondered that the present culture is so divisive that a throwback to an earlier era would be refreshing.

We still are a little sex obsessed, but not nearly as much as in past years. There were few scantily clad women race car drivers selling IT services. Instead, Mr. Clean had sex appeal, and maybe was popular with female viewers who want their husbands to help clean around the house. The supermodel in the Snickers ad appeared only briefly and wore a lovely and modest dress. Two ads from Verizon, however, had an unusual reference to “50 Shades of Gray.”

Patriotism still runs through us. Coke boldly ran the national anthem through its ad. Others used iconic American imagery to associate themselves with America. Related to patriotism, the ads showed that we are a culture of social conscience and commentary. 84Lumber told the beginning of a story about migrant workers. Viewers had to see the conclusion on a web site, and the site crashed. Anheuser-Busch told the story of its immigrant founder. The NFL in its “between these lines” spot spoke not of football but of national unity. These ads are always a 50-50—the people could feel good about them or the ads could backfire as people see the patriotic theme as cheap pandering. A lot depends on execution of the ad, the reputation of the brand, and the judgment by the public of the advertiser’s true intent.


In total, I was personally happy to see fewer ads that were juvenile and boldly appealing to base passions such as sex and greed. Ads were more direct, mature, and clean. Perhaps a culture, like a football team, can come back against all odds.