By Matt Smith

There was a time—let’s call it the good old days—when, during the weeks leading up to that great TV extravaganza known as the Super Bowl, that people talked about the game.

Who was going to win?  Whose quarterback was better? What was the deciding factor—the Giant’s offense or Denver’s defense? You know—football talk.

Then at some point—and I can’t say exactly when this happened—people became as interested in the ads on the Super Bowl as they did in the game.  Hell, some people became even more interested in the ads than they were in the game.

In some ways, this was a good thing, especially for the advertising industry.  And to a degree it was understandable.

After all, the price of a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl increased exponentially every year.  According to Wikipedia, “the average cost of a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl has ranged from $37,500 at Super Bowl I, to around $2.2 million at Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000, and by Super Bowl XLIX in 2015, had doubled to around $4.5 million.”  Today, the reported rate for a spot in Sunday’s Super Bowl is $5 million.  For that kind of money, full attention is warranted.

So it made sense. Any advertiser paying that much money for a TV commercial wants to make sure people see it.  To do that, they pressure their ad agencies to come up with something special that will stand out from the other ads, engage consumers, and become a topic of post-game conversation.

But now advertisers are trying something new to make sure their TV spots are seen and talked about.  Rather than releasing the completed ads before the game to several news outlets–mostly advertising trade publications—they’ve adopted a new strategy.  This year they’re running ads that advertise the ads.  This is insanity and yet genius all at the same time.

After all, that’s what great advertising is all about—surprising the consumer, doing something different to capture their attention. Making a splash, creating a memorable moment.  Let’s not forget, the Super Bowl is the one time left on TV in which upwards of 70 million viewers tune in.   Somehow, $5 million is a bargain when you consider that. And leave it to smart, creative ad folks to realize that say, buying a super bowl ad is no longer about the show, but about the month before and two weeks afterward.

So now we have teaser ads that promote the real ads that won’t be unveiled until the big game.  Kind of a like trailers for new movies.  We have Danny DeVito swimming in chocolate, and Matt Damon doing some philanthropic talking about water. And Cindy Crawford is back for Pepsi!

But will it work? Are the ads before the ads going to lead up to people wanting to see the real thing? Or is it better to just plunk that slick, super-produced 30-second sucker right in front of your chicken wing and cheese-doodle-eating-friends in real time? I wonder which is more effective.

It’s true that we live in a world of engagement, a time in which being talked about and top of mind is considered being a winner.  As such, the ad purveyors want us to talk about the winning Super Bowl ads before we even see them. But I think this strategy is suspect. Can’t we just enjoy the game and see some great commercials during the show? After all, the game is the frame work for the art produced. We need the context of the game to create the surprise, to capture the emotion that is crafted into the spot. I understand that for $5 million the client wants some serious attention and engagement.  But just think how much more fun it all could be when you get to be surprised by a fantastic, entertaining commercial at the same time as everyone else on the planet who is tuning in.

And THAT is what watching TV is all about.  That’s why $5 million is a steal of a deal for the air time. It’s for that unique, exciting universal moment when we all feel one thing, that 30 seconds where we all are not splintered all over the media universe, when we’re all seeing, sharing and talking about the same thing, and will continue talking about it for days to come.

Matt Smith is founder-CEO of ad agency SmithGifford.  Smith was featured in Capitol Communicator’s Up Close and Personal profile series and you can see his profile here.

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