Tuesday 9 February 2010

The Super Bowl and the Changing Nature of Brand Advertisements

As most Americans probably know, the most viewed sporting event in the U.S. of the year took place on Sunday. We are of course speaking of the Super Bowl, the finals of the National Football League to determine the champion for the 2009 regular season. This year the game matched the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. The game set a new record for viewers, with an estimated 106 million couch potatoes glued to their tv seats.

The Super Bowl is not just a football event, however. In some circles, no less important than the outcome of the football game are the advertisements that are interlaced into the game during the three-plus hour broadcast. The most expensive ad time per minute on U.S. television, these advertisements are discussed and studied long after the match is over (the initial review of this year's ads seems to be that they were "uninspiring"). Be that as it may, the power of the Super Bowl advertisement to build brands has become a marketing legend in its own right.

That said, observers have noted a marked shift in emphasis that seems to have taken place with respect to Super Bowl advertising. In particular, attention has been directed to the fact that the role of advertisements of the game has changed from brand-building as part of a long-term branding strategy to advertisements intended to achieve a quick upward bounce in sales of the goods, services or company promoted.

The classic example of the Super Bowl as a platform for brand development is the legendary 1984 advertisement that launched the Macintosh for Apple. A great description of the advertisement is set out in the following, which is taken from a paper delivered in 1997 by Ted Friedman titled: "Apple's 1984: The Introduction of the Macintosh in the Cultural History of Personal Computers", as follows:
"In the third quarter of the 1984 Super Bowl, a strange and disorienting advertisement appeared on the TV screens of the millions of viewers tuned in to the yearly ritual. The ad opens on a gray network of futuristic tubes connecting blank, ominous buildings. Inside the tubes, we see cowed subjects marching towards a cavernous auditorium, where they bow before a Big Brother figure pontificating from a giant TV screen. But one lone woman remains unbroken. Chased by storm troopers, she runs up to the screen, hurls a hammer with a heroic grunt, and shatters the TV image. As the screen explodes, bathing the stunned audience in the light of freedom, a voice-over announces, "On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."

This commercial, designed by the advertising agency Chiat/Day to introduce Apple's Macintosh computer and directed by Ridley Scott fresh off his science fiction classic Blade Runner, has never run again since that Super Bowl spot. But few commercials have ever been more influential. Advertising Age named it the 1980s' Commercial of the Decade. You can still see its echoes today in futuristic ads for technology and telecommunications multinationals such as AT&T, MCI, and Intel.

The 1984 commercial was a critical moment in the development of the American public's conception of the proper uses and cultural implications of personal computers. PCs were introduced in the 1970s as tools - utilitarian objects designed to facilitate specific tasks. In the 1980s, they became full-fledged commodities - shiny consumer products defined not just by their use value, but by the collection of meanings, hopes, and ideals attached to them through advertising, promotion, and cultural circulation. With the 1984 ad, Apple identified the Macintosh with an ideology of "empowerment" - a vision of the PC as a tool for combating conformity and asserting individuality."

The advertisement here is credited with no less than creating the Mac as an iconic challenger to the IBM-driven desk top computer, and it set the tone for the Super Bowl as a platform by which brands could literally be created. Not every advertisement could be this successful, but over the years, companies such as General Motors and Federal Express used the Super Bowl as a vehicle for maintaining the visibility of their brands before a broadly-based U.S. viewership.

This seems, however, to no longer be the case. GM and FedEx were apparently nowhere to be found in this year's fare of Super Bowl advertisements. Instead of advertisements aimed at sustaining brands to a mass market population, more and more advertisements were apparently directed intentionally to only a sub-population of the viewers.

Perhaps the most discussed example was an advertisement featuring Tim Tebow, who just completed a successful four-year career playing football for the University of Florida. The advertisement was a veiled promotion in favor the pro-life position that stands as one of the most divisive issues in U.S. society. If Super Bowl advertisements were once viewed a bringing the viewers together around a broadly conceived brand carefully nurtured over a long period of time, the most recent Super Bow advertisements seem more and more to be directed towards segmentation and short-term gain.

This change in the nature of Super Bowl advertisements raises the larger question of how one can build and sustain a broadly-based brand in an era of hundreds of cable channels and tens of thousands thousands of websites. This is especially so when the drive is for immediate results and longer term brand development tends to be shunted to the sideline. This is another way of saying that we may never see the likes of the Mac advertisement again, with the attendant challenge of finding other ways to create and sustain a brand.

Oh--for those who prefer to focus on the game itself rather than the advertisements. The final score: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17.


Mary Adams said...


Don't you think that the brand conversation has just moved away from TV ads? I think the long-term nurturing is less focused on the brand and more on the relationship with the customer. This will ultimately be a stronger and more durable relationship but not one built on one way ads...


Neil Wilkof said...


Thanks for the comment. I would agree in part, but I would still argue as well that: (i) there are now multiple audio-visual (and even interactive) platforms rather than simply a limited number of tv challenges with national reach; (ii) interactivity allows for viral advertising: (iii) network effects allow for some brands to be created by dint of their very capture of a given market: and (iv) corporate short-termism has made it more difficult to justify long-term investments in brands.