Advertising Idol?

The idea that people care more about the ads than the game at the Super Bowl has gone beyond a quip and into a kind of truism. And certainly looking at the “post-game” reports today there’s no question that Monday morning quarterbacking applies as much to Jeep, M&Ms and GoDaddy as it does to the Ravens and 49ers.

We’re not immune – we’ve been testing ads before and after the game and you can expect a full report on the emotional play-by-play soon (it’ll be a key part of this webinar, for a start). But in this post I just want to think about what a unique phenomenon the Super Bowl ad fest is. It’s like something out of a marketer’s fever dream – an event, one of the most-watched in the world, in which people’s expectations are explicitly focusing on the ads as well as the action.

Budweiser’s Clydesdale won the USA Today poll last night in 60 ultra-emotional seconds.

Other sporting events – and brands – are trying to get a slice of this. There’s a definite curiosity about what Nike or Coke will get up to when the FIFA World Cup rolls around, for instance. But that’s every four years, and the Super Bowl is every year. Could it get any better?

When it comes to long-term ad effectiveness, we know that fame is the key. Fame, as defined by Les Binet and Peter Field in their classic work Marketing In The Era Of Accountability, is more than just awareness. It’s a category-defining strength and authority, and the best way to get it is through highly emotional advertising – like Budweiser’s equine tearjerker above.

So the Super Bowl looks like a great route to fame advertising. From an audience perspective, a publicity perspective, and a simple signalling perspective – “I can afford to advertise at the Super Bowl” sends a strong signal – it’s a winner.

But the rules are different. The Super Bowl is the American Idol of advertising – the creativity and entertainment is only half of it. With the attention has come public competition – this year, for the first time, USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Rater was open to anyone who cared to register. Brands can win the night, but they can lose it too, badly and in public. This is unusual territory for advertising, let alone fame advertising.

A John Lewis ad is for life, not just for… oh, OK, just for Xmas then.

From a fame advertising perspective, which is better – the dangerous showdown of Super Bowl night, or the approach taken at Christmas by a brand like Coca-Cola, or John Lewis in the UK, building fame year-on-year until seeing each new advert becomes a kind of tradition? It’s not an easy question to answer (though the Cannes Jury’s Grand Prix for effectiveness to John Lewis suggests they might be on the right track!)

But the Super Bowl is like American Idol in another way: in the end, a victorious advert is great, but what happens next is more important. The careers of Idol winners vary dramatically, and so do the afterlives of Super Bowl ads. That’s one reason we think the virality of Super Bowl ads is as interesting as the armchair reaction on the night. Once the spotlights – and the power failures – have left town, it’s the commercials that get shared and watched again which may be the real winners.

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