By Bob Sprague

Gladiatorial contests at the Colosseum in Ancient Rome were interspersed with live naval battles, animal hunts, and the occasional Christian dinner for lions.  Our Super Bowl has ads.  Progress?  Perhaps.

I look forward to the commercial breaks and prefer to see the new spots in context, rather than through advance sneak peeks.  Watching some spots is rubbernecking – witnessing a wreck and not being able to turn away.  Others are little masterpieces – cinematic art in miniature chunks.  In any case I am amazed by the economics.  The price tag for air time alone translates now to $166,666 per second – larger than the annual marketing budget for many clients – with a production budget that may match or exceed that amount.

Is it worth it?  Probably not.  It’s hard to imagine that I would ever recommend a Super Bowl spot for its ROI.  I suspect that most Super Bowl spots are bought out of hubris or one-upsmanship.

But I’m still glad that Super Bowl spots are done, and here’s why.

Great creative advertising is a craft.  To be effective, it must achieve at least two things:  first, it must stand out among bazillions of competing messages so that it is noticed and remembered by the right kind of viewer.  Second, it must have some connection to the product or service it represents, so that not only the advertising itself but some positive association with the client is recalled.

It’s hard to imagine an environment in which it is more difficult to stand out.  The Super Bowl telecast is a four-hour endurance test of audio and video stimulation.  The game itself is festooned with graphics, sound effects, shouting heads, transitions, and occasionally even football plays.  Breaks are filled with spots, promos, and sponsorships clamoring for attention.  Any advertisement that rises above this battle to the death represents an achievement.

However, there are many Super Bowl ads that succeed in attracting attention but still fail to provide a memorable connection to their sponsor.  There have been many that were so outrageous, so funny, so clever, or even so stomach-turning that they got a lot of comment.  However, if the attention-grabbing only exists for its own sake, then as a piece of advertising the spot is a failure.

Every once in a while, a Super Bowl spot succeeds in both respects.  It rises above the din, and attracts attention; and it delivers an indelible message about its sponsor.  We remember that Mean Joe Greene was drinking a Coke… that Wendy’s has the beef… that it was Apple smashing Big Blue.  This may not be high art – but spots like these do represent some of the best of the craft of creative advertising, and can serve as an inspiration to those of us who work in the field.

Like the makers of Super Bowl ads, we must remember that we are communicating in an extremely crowded and distracting environment.  We must pursue things that are unusual, different, surprising, and risky if our messages are ever going to get through.  And we can’t forget the ultimate purpose of our products and services:  to acquaint buyers with the offerings of our clients, and change their behavior as a result.

Is Super Bowl advertising worth the money?  Even though I appreciate the effort of the clients and agencies who do participate, I doubt it.  There is much more opportunity in nuanced multichannel integrated campaigns for advertising that delivers a measurable ROI.

On the other hand, if you have the budget for a Super Bowl spot and really want to go that way… let’s talk.

Bob Sprague is President & CEO of PCI

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