Super Bowl Commercials: America’s Annual Festival of Advertising
[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
“I think the Super Bowl deserves to be taken extremely seriously as a cultural event, not least of all because it’s estimated that a hundred million people watch it every year, which is equal to about a third of the US population. . . . [It’s] probably the biggest communal cultural event that Americans engage in, and as such, probably the broadest expression of American culture. But it seems to me that it’s not the game itself that fills in most of this cultural content, but the advertising. . . . It’s worth looking into these ads more closely and analyzing them for their meaning as well as their effects, and not just treating them as amusing things to vote on on YouTube.”—Video blogger ContraPoints2
Every year in mid-winter Americans celebrate a gargantuan cultural ritual. Weeks are spent in preparation for a single afternoon and evening of events that are shared by millions of people of all walks of life. Even many Americans living abroad as expatriates or deployed military take part, synced through technology to the precise timing of these events at home. While neither explicitly religious nor nationalistic in nature, the celebration reverberates with aspects of both.3 This is, of course, the annual Super Bowl football game.4
The Super Bowl encompasses much more than the football game at its center. It is also about the hoopla leading up to it—sportscasters and fans discussing for weeks ahead of time which teams are likely to compete in the game. It is about the halftime show that is a mega pop cultural event on its own. It is about the parties in homes, restaurants, and bars where people gather to watch the game on TV and share the experience. And, not least of all, it is America’s premier advertising event in which advertising professionals showcase some of their most creative work and wealthy corporations tout their brands.
This unit focuses on the Super Bowl as America’s annual festival of advertising. It examines the game’s spectators and the social setting in which they watch it; the making, content, and cost of Super Bowl commercials; the meaning and impact of the commercials; and public and critical assessments as well as the publicity surrounding the ads.
2. Who Watches the Super Bowl?
Watching the Super Bowl is a communal event for most people. It is a time for friends and family to convene, gather around the largest TV screen available, and watch the events together. Watching and partying often begins several hours before kickoff. Televised pre-game shows provide the occasion to start the festivities. The tens of thousands of spectators5 who watch the game in person pay dearly for that privilege. Tickets cost from several hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on location and source of acquisition. Millions more fans watch at home, or in special party venues like restaurants and bars. One of every three people in America, somehow, somewhere, watches. Although the Super Bowl is thus primarily a TV event, the newer communications technologies provide other opportunities to view the game, and/or parallel programming.
According to the NBC television network, an average of 111.3 million viewers watched Super Bowl XLVI on February 5, 2012. This made it the most-watched mass media event to date in US history.6
Proprietary information about details of the 2012 Super Bowl audience is available from organizations like Nielsen for a price. However, a general breakdown of the previous year’s Super Bowl audience demonstrates the event’s broad appeal:7
• Gender: 54% male, 46% female8
• Ethnicity: 80% Caucasian, 11% African American, 9% Hispanic
• Age: 2–17 (16%), 18–34 (23%), 35–49 (25%), 50–64 (22%), 65+ (14%)
3. The Social Setting of Super Bowl Viewing
Die-hard fans want the best technology available for watching the Super Bowl. The choice of whose home or which venue may be as straightforward as who has the largest screen. Sales of new TVs always skyrocket in the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and TV shows offer suggestions for buying, preparing, and serving Super-Bowl-appropriate food and drinks. Other tips are offered for how to prepare for the “big game,”9 such as decorating with team merchandise, creating separate areas if opposing fans are expected, or if no team is favored, using the Super Bowl advertiser’s logos to create an advertising-themed party. In the meantime, super markets, party stores, and other retailers stock abundant supplies of food, drink, and snacks. Like many religious and national holidays such as Thanksgiving Christmas and the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl is another American ritual of consumption.10
A distinctly macho aura surrounds the entire event. All the players are men, as are the coaches, referees, and most sports commentators. Super Bowl parties are occasions for masculine drinks, especially beer, and hearty, basic foods. Frilly, fancy stuff—expensive wines and canapés—have no place. It may be the one occasion all year when some men plan a menu, and buy, cook or prepare a significant amount of food. Pride of place in front of TV screens usually goes to men, who are generally considered the primary and most knowledgeable viewers. Women, who are becoming more involved, celebrate this day of machismo as well, but are often careful not to interject naïve or inappropriate comments and questions.11
A few journalists and commentators invariably offer viewing tips in the runup to the actual event.12 These do’s (throw yourself into the game, follow the men’s lead, offer support and/or consolation to avid enthusiasts, etc.) and don’ts (talk when the game is on, even think of switching channels to see what else is on, or show a lack of enthusiasm) go a long way in defining the social setting surrounding Super Bowl viewing. It is clear that the Super Bowl is an extraordinary event—one of the most special days of the American year—where there are culturally appropriate ways of celebrating, and deviations from expected behavior are frowned upon.
4. Super Bowl XLVI (2012)
The Super Bowl’s massive viewing audience means that the cost of commercial airtime is extraordinarily expensive. The press reported the cost for a 30-second spot during the 2012 Super Bowl to be as high as $3.5 million.14 Appearing in the Super Bowl commercial lineup is in many ways an advertiser’s dream. It does not get any better for marketers than having their company’s Super Bowl spot(s) noticed and talked about—ideally in praiseworthy terms for such things as wit, humor, entertainment value, etc. Many large corporations invest heavily in Super Bowl advertising and consider it money well spent.
The accompanying table lists the companies that advertised in the 2012 Super Bowl and provides links to online versions of the spots. Most of these spots have high production values and were costly to produce, adding significantly to the advertisers’ overall investments in Super Bowl exposure.
|Bud Light Platinum||Translation||Factory|
|Audi S7||Venables Bell & Partners||Vampire Party|
|Hyundai Veloster Turbo||Innocean||Cheetah|
|Bud Light Platinum||Translation||Work|
|M&M’s Milk Chocolate||BBDO||Just My Shell|
|Best Buy Electronics||Crispin Porter + Bogusky||Phone Innovators|
|Chevrolet Silverado||Goodby Silverstein & Partners||2012|
|Bridgestone||Richards Group||Performance Football|
|Go Daddy.co||In-house||Body Paint|
|Budweiser||Anomaly||Return of the King|
|Doritos Tortilla Chips||Amateur / Goodby Silverstein & Partners||Man’s Best Friend|
|Chevrolet Camaro||Amateur / Goodby Silverstein & Partners||Happy Grad|
|General Electric||BBDO||Power and Beer|
|TaxACT.com||J.W. Morton & Associates||Free to pee|
|Volkswagen Beetle||Deutsch Inc.||The Dog Strikes Back|
|Chevrolet Sonic||Goodby, Silverstein & Partners||Stunt Anthem|
|Teleflora.com||Fire Station Agency||Give and Receive|
|Skechers GOrun Sneakers||Siltanen & Partners||Go Run|
|Doritos Tortilla Chips||Amateur / Goodby Silverstein & Partners||Sling Baby|
|Toyota Camry||Saatchi & Saatchi||Connections|
|Hulu Plus||Crispin Porter + Bogusky||Hulubratory|
|Bud Light||Cannonball||Welcome to Halftime|
|Chrysler||Wieden+Kennedy||Halftime in America|
|Fiat 500||Richards Group, Dallas||Seduction|
|Toyota Camry||Saatchi & Saatchi||It’s Reinvented|
|Dannon Oikos||Poptent, Young & Rubicam||The Tease|
|Century 21||Red Tettemer + Partners of Philadelphia||Smarter. Bolder. Faster.|
|General Electric||BBDO||Building Something Big in Louisville|
|Bridgestone||Richards Group||Performance Basketball|
|Honda CR-V||RPA||Matthew’s Day Off|
|MetLife||Crispin Porter + Bogusky||Everyone|
|Hyundai Genesis||Innocean||Think Fast|
|Bud Light||McGarryBowen||Rescue Dog|
|Kia Optima||David&Goliath||A Dream Car. For Real Life|
|Samsung Galaxy Note||MDC Partners’ 72andSunny||Thing Called Love|
|Cadillac ATS||Fallon||Green Hell|
|Go Daddy.com||In-house||The Cloud|
5. Value and Ideology in Super Bowl Commercials
It is tempting to think that a Super Bowl spot is one of the best ways to promote brand awareness and consumer action in the marketplace, or, as has happened occasionally, to introduce a new product. However, many commentators on advertising and the Super Bowl question whether the $3.5 million dollars or so for airtime and the millions more to produce these commercials actually reinforce brand loyalty, encourage consumers to switch brands or try new products, and thereby translate into bottom-line successes.
What is certain is that Super Bowl spots get a lot of attention. Viewers of the Super Bowl do tend to watch them. Internet postings encourage further viewing. Advertising pundits comment on them. In short, a commercial that airs on the Super Bowl gets about as much attention as it is possible for an advertisement to receive.
Their social and cultural impact, however, goes far beyond the issue of whether or not they boost sales. What they unquestionably do is promote certain values over others and instill certain ideologies about the role of commodities in our lives. It is to these matters that we now turn.
Representations of Women
Given the large number of men who watch the game and the overall macho, heterosexist orientation of the event, it is no surprise that a great many Super Bowl commercials feature attractive women and put their bodies on display. The commercials tend to be organized from the point of view of the ideal spectator being a heterosexual male. They depict women as men presumably want to see them—beautiful, sexy, scantily clothed, receptive. For female viewers, the images in the ads are models of what men supposedly expect of them. Three Super Bowl commercials illustrate these patterns.
The M&M’s commercial was one of the most popular in the 2012 pool, scoring high in viewer polls ostensibly for its humor and many popular cultural references. It introduces Ms. Brown, the latest in the series of the brand’s “spokescandies.” The vignette features both human and animated characters at a party. As Ms. Brown is talking to other women, she is being eyed by a man in a red shirt. The other women tell Ms. Brown that the guy thinks she is nude (because she is brown—the color of M&M’s candy beneath its outer coating). Suddenly, Red, another spokescandy, appears. He looks at Ms. Brown and proclaims that he didn’t know it was that kind of party. Red quickly unzips his outer shell so that he can dance naked.
On one level, this is an amusing little story about a misperception that results in a male character making a fool out of himself at the party. It is easy for viewers to relate to being in a situation where a major social faux pas can result from a hasty assumption.
However, on a deeper level this is yet another of the many lessons about gender relations from the world of advertising. A woman is minding her own business at a party while chatting with friends. A man ogles her and chuckles about her appearance, but she ignores him. Put more simply the message here is that women’s bodies are always on display and are eye candy for men. It’s okay for men to prey on women and pursue them even when such advances are unwanted.
This ad can also be seen from the point of view of female spectators of the Super Bowl who are not amused by silly male antics but instead rebel against them. In this context, Ms. Brown is an outraged and vocal woman who refuses to turn her body into a mere object of the male gaze and turning the commercial into a critique of business-as-usual heterosexist male assumptions.
The Fiat 500 commercial plays on a familiar fantasy of how men look at cars. The male protagonist sees the Fiat 500 as a beautiful woman who comes on to him, slaps him around a bit, teases him, and ultimately seduces him. The commercial invites the (male) viewer to share the fantasy of car as sexy Italian woman.
Equating the woman and the car transforms the woman into an object to be desired, admired, and ultimately possessed. For the car, this equation takes the attributes of the woman—sexuality, sexiness, attractiveness, pleasure giving, and so on—and transfers them to the inanimate machine. Once again, it’s a man’s world and the story is told from his point of view.
The Teleflora commercial features fashion model Adriana Lima instructing male viewers about buying flowers for Valentine’s Day. Lima is shown in elegant surroundings dressing herself sexily in black lingerie, painting her full lips red to match a bouquet of red roses, and preparing to go out for the evening. Near the end, she looks directly into the camera and says, “Guys, Valentine’s Day is not that complicated. Give and you shall receive.” These words appear on the screen: Happy Valentine’s Night.
This commercial is unmistakably a message about sex. It might as well simply say, “Buy a woman flowers and she’ll give you sex.” Note that the point here is that a commodity stands at the center of, and mediates, the relationship between the man and the woman. Moreover, this commercial is about sex, not love. And by “paying” for it, the commercial turns the woman into a whore as opposed to a lover.
Representations of Men
The discussion above concerning imagery of women in Super Bowl commercials also contains imagery of men. The various commercials show men as daring, reckless, obsessed with sex, and even mistaking inanimate objects with people. This section examines some additional aspects of how men are represented in several Super Bowl commercials.
The Chevy Silverado commercial is a high-budget drama about the predicted apocalypse when the Mayan calendar cycle ends. It is set amid destruction and little seems to have survived, save a few men who find one another in a clearing among the rubble. They have all arrived in their Chevy pickups (which survived the apocalypse) but a friend is missing—they surmise because he was driving a Ford instead of a Chevy.
The men in this commercial are rugged individualists who look out for number one. They shed no tears over the loss of the world and their families and friends. They even remain stoic when they talk about their missing buddy. The preeminent values of individualism, independence, stoicism, and survivalism are the essence of masculinity in this spot.
Another car commercial, this one for Acura, features Jerry Seinfeld who is obsessed with the idea of being the first owner of the new Acura. He learns that he is number two and the storyline largely follows his shenanigans designed to convince the other man to give up his first-place spot to him. In the end, Seinfeld loses out to Jay Leno who makes an even more fantastic offer to the man.
The spirit of this commercial—namely, being number one and winning at everything—fits with the logic of the Super Bowl. It is all about which teams have succeeded in winning a place in the Super Bowl and then which one will be the best of all. Competition, blind ambition, and the most valiant of efforts to succeed are masculine values celebrated here.
Along with cars, beer is one of the commodities frequently promoted in Super Bowl spots. A Bud Light commercial features a man and his dog, Weego. The scruffy-looking dog, whom the audience learns early on is a rescue dog, performs an amazing trick, thereby gaining his owner the admiration of his friends. Weego’s trick is to fetch Bud Light whenever someone says, “Here Weego.” The commercial also features a tie-in via Facebook to Bud Light’s support of The Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF).
The man in this commercial is a modern nice guy—he invites his friends to parties, he is generous with food and drink, and he shows them a good time while enjoying himself. But he is also somewhat hedonistic, his best friend is a dog rather than a person, and he exhibits no deep ties or relationships with anyone.
The H&M commercial for David Beckham brand men’s underwear features a photographic study in close up of the soccer icon’s body. There’s not much to the ad except for the male body on display, making this a sort of, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” situation by giving female spectators the opportunity for a change to objectify the male body. American society does not condone straight men admiring other men’s bodies, unless those bodies are on display in a sporting event such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the like. However, women’s bodies are amply displayed and this is not only condoned but also greatly enjoyed in context of heteronormativity.
Here are some comments posted on various websites about the Beckham spot:
The H&M commercial is brilliant. Why? Because it speaks to a demographic that is usually completely ignored by super bowl ads: women. Last year, 46% of people who watched the super bowl were women and women are more likely than men to be watching for the commercial. Take into account that women frequently buy underwear for their boyfriends, fiances and husbands and you realize that H&M is . . . brilliant. Just because the commercial isn’t designed for the straight male, doesn’t make it a bad commercial. 22
ummm, women do NOT buy underwear for their guys (unless he’s a pretty pathetic boyfriend) . . . it was targeted to the gays who would be turning out in droves to see Madonna [in the Halftime Show]23
Women’s standards for sexy need some adjustment. They need to get out more. He has more wrinkles and less muscle tone than I do, and I’m probably twice his age. His body is covered with more graffiti than a ghetto building. You can see by the fist he is making that he is straining to show some barely detectable muscle definition. Hopefully he can play football better than he can model underwear. Oh, and they didn’t show his front side, because they are saving that for the Vienna sausage ad. 24
hmmm . . . I think he’s ridiculously hot. I really can’t get enough of him. Why are you being so critical? 98% of the sexy ads out there are for you guys to enjoy, why are you ragging on the one commercial we get? also, who cares about his wrinkles, you don’t have to be 20 to be sexy (unless you are a female in Western society, apparently, so be thankful men aren’t held to the same ridiculous standards that you hold women to).25
This spot and the accompanying viewer comments show just how controversial it is to treat the male body as the female body is so frequently treated—illustrating again the great discrepancy in gender representations. Many critics of the usual way of displaying women’s bodies do not feel that the solution to the current situation is to treat men’s bodies in a similar way, but rather to rethink the objectification and dehumanization of all bodies.26
The Role of Commodities in Our Lives
Above all else, Super Bowl commercials teach us about the significance of commodities in our lives. People are presented as being obsessed with owning the latest, the best, the most expensive, the showiest, the most admired objects, and the implication of all this is that their very selves are defined by the commodities that they own. This notion is one of the fundamental critiques of the consumerist society made by academic critics of all sorts, and taken together, the 2012 Super Bowl spots provide all the evidence needed to mount an impressive empirical validation of this critique.
For example, a Camry commercial shows the brand associated with all the highest moments of life: birth in a Camry, a marriage proposal in a Camry, growing up in a Camry. The single thread through these moments in life is the car that, in this narrative, ties them all together.
In his insightful YouTube analysis of 2012 Super Bowl commercials, video blogger ContraPoints comments on this manner of linking genuinely important events in life and history with commodities:
So you have the end of Prohibition and the man runs through the streets with a newspaper shouting, and everyone comes together and they carry Budweiser crates out of the horse drawn carriages, the Clydesdales triumphantly rush through the streets . . . Community is restored and America is back to life as a vibrant world power. The Depression is over because Prohibition has ended, seems to be the motif they’re playing on. As a country currently in the midst of an economic depression, this kind of imagery is going to be very compelling, but offensive. Again, incredibly offensive to suggest that Budweiser really is the unifying force in American culture.
You see the same thing with Pepsi. Pepsi had this ad with the “King of Pepsi”. . . who bestows Pepsi on the acts, on the performers, who please him. And this female singer comes along and she sings well and so he gives her Pepsi. But she overthrows the king and throws him into his own dungeon and distributes Pepsi for all. So Pepsi becomes the driving revolutionary force that’s going to overthrow monarchy, that’s going to give freedom and justice for all. It’s all thanks to Pepsi, of course. Again, the high becomes the low, the cheap soft drink is the driving force of social change.28
Thus, advertisements always carry two levels of meaning. The first is about the branded commodity and what role it can play in the viewer’s life. The second, more subtle and often overlooked, is about the social and cultural lessons that the ad teaches. These lessons may be about gender, social relationships, power in society, the role of commodities in life, and so on.29 Often, a single advertisement speaks about several such themes, along with delivering its primary selling message.
6. How the Internet Has Changed Super Bowl Commercials
The Internet has become an important factor in the marketing mix surrounding Super Bowl commercials.30 In 2011, analysts realized the significance of web viewings when it was noted that a Volkswagen31 spot garnered 90 million views on the web. Several advertisers, including Lexus, Bridgestone, Volkswagen, Audi, and Chevy, have now followed that pattern by pre-releasing spots or “teasers” on the web, and posting them on various sites for viewing before the game and long after it is over. These strategies start the “buzz” about the spots earlier and extend their life over a much longer time frame. Moreover, the Internet is virtually free when compared to the high cost of airing a commercial during game time.
Pre-releases also gain free media attention in the run up to the game, as TV stations, newspapers, and other media search for Super Bowl-related content. In addition, during the game, many viewers send other people messages using various social media like texting, tweeting, or posting on Facebook, creating even more interest in the spots and possibly also driving traffic to the web.
7. What Goes into a Super Bowl Commercial?
Backstories on Super Bowl commercials tell of the extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort that goes into producing these spots. There is no single formula for a Super Bowl commercial except that it needs to be big, flashy, and hold the viewers’ attention. Two stories reveal the kinds of marketing strategies and objectives that motivate Super Bowl productions.
Read about Coke’s polar bears in “Advertising and Christmas” in ADText, and see all 34 spots created for The Coca-Cola Polar Bowl.
Coca-Cola recycled their popular polar bear theme in three commercials for the 2012 Super Bowl. However, the marketing mix did not end with the spots, but rather tried to be “everywhere the consumers are.” To accomplish this, Coke, in conjunction with Wieden+Kennedy of Portland, Oregon, planned an integrated marketing plan that took advantage of what Coke’s research had shown: at least 60% of Super Bowl viewers were expected to have a smartphone, tablet, or computer within arm’s reach during the game.32 Utilizing these devices in communicating with consumers while they were watching the game on TV produced what is called a “second screen” phenomenon.
Coke and Wieden designed a “media branding event” that was truly complex and multi-pronged. It included an animated website featuring the polar bears as fans and their reactions to the game and halftime show. Web-only commercials would be streamed throughout the Super Bowl. For the broadcast of the game itself, Coke purchased three commercial slots. For one of them, the Coke/Wieden team prepared alternative versions, intending to choose the one most responsive at airtime to the situation at hand. A social media tie-in allowed viewers to respond and react to the Coke materials. Finally, participants on the website were invited to send congratulations or condolences to a friend along with a coupon.
Here’s how one journalist anticipated Coke’s effort:
The CokePolarBowl.com site will feature the Coke polar bears watching and reacting to the game in real time, thanks to live animation technology. One bear will be rooting for New England while the other will be a New York giants fan. They’ll jump for joy when their respective team scores or has a big play, and don’t be surprised if they fall asleep if and when a Pepsi ad is shown on TV.
Fans will be able to comment or ask the bears questions via Facebook and Twitter, and viewers will also be encouraged to upload game-related fan photos and videos on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Coke devised the integrated campaign to channel brand-related comments to its own Facebook page (which has more than 37 million likes) and its @CocaCola Twitter presence.
The responses, crafted by a team of ad copywriters, will highlight and amplify social comments, photos and videos that might create buzz around the brand by featuring them on the CokePolarBowl.com live stream.
Just five years ago, broadcast television was more of an advertising domain unto itself, with success roughly measured by the millions of households, as measured by Nielsen. Some companies were measuring correlations between broad brand advertising and activity on Web sites. But only a few pioneers were paying attention to how big an impact ads had on the still-nascent social networks.
Today, consumers react to ads (and, for that matter, unpopular corporate policies) by immediately sharing en masse their thoughts on Facebook and Twitter; those reactions also are carefully measured and dissected by advertising agencies, digital media firms and the brand advertisers that hire them.
What Coca-Cola didn’t discuss in unveiling its campaign to the media last week was how it might mine the big data that the social media interactions will generate. Social network profiles, likes and expressed opinions offer a treasure trove of demographic and psychographic data that can be mined by social-media listening (what are people saying?), sentiment analysis (what are they thinking?), and social-network analysis (are talkers influential and what are they doing?) technologies. Coke could use that data to measure the impact of its ad spend and learn more about avid Coke fans.36
Although agency-produced Super Bowl ads can cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, the Doritos brand of corn chips has found a way to produce winning spots for $30 and $3,000 dollars. These were the costs of two consumer-generated commercials for the 2012 Super Bowl. More than 6,100 amateur filmmakers entered Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl contest. After months of online viewing and voting, the winning two were screened during the Super Bowl and their makers were rewarded handsomely with cash from the company. Both ranked high on various lists of commercials, such as Nielsen’s “10 Most Remembered” and “10 Best Liked.”37
Visit the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” site.
This kind of participatory marketing is one of the key branding trends of the last several years. According to Frito-Lay Chief Marketing Officer Ann Mukherjee, “The idea [is] that consumers (people) aren’t just passive recipients of messaging but active producers and distributors of brand content of all kinds. . . . The Super Bowl is the climax of this story; the story starts in September when we put the call out for submissions.” From that point on, Doritos tracks three communities: the makers (who enter the contest), the lovers (who create buzz and follow the contest), and the watchers (who watch the ads and vote in the contest). Once the finalists are announced, they become “brand ambassadors” for Doritos.40
8. Measuring the Impact of Super Bowl Commercials
The 2012 Super Bowl marks a new high in providing advertisers informative feedback on the various ways that their advertising affects consumers. The most important factor in providing the increased feedback is the greater involvement of social media in the total Super Bowl experience.
It had been common in recent years for USA Today and other media to publish assessments of the Super Bowl commercials. These commentaries tended to focus on the opinions of advertising experts and panels of viewers. In 2012, USA Today augmented these sources with an even more relevant one—the opinions of real people collected via social media. This step puts advertisers in closer contact with the very people whose opinions matter most to them.
The USA Today/Facebook Super Bowl Ad Meter invited viewers to vote for their favorite spot in a 48-hour window following the airing of each ad during the Super Bowl. Viewers picked a Doritos ad as their top choice and an Anheuser-Busch ad as runner-up. Both ads use a humorous approach and animals, factors also present in many of the other top-ranked ads.
USA Today also used the more conventional approach of assembling focus group panels (286 consumers) in McLean, Virginia, and Phoenix, Arizona. The panel results resembled, but did not mirror, the choices of the much larger number of people who voted via the Internet.43
Social media’s involvement in fostering advertiser-consumer engagement went well beyond consumers voting on favorite ads. Here are some of the additional ways social media were used:44
• Viewers texted more than 985,000 comments about Super Bowl commercials during the game.
• 36% reported planning to share their favorite ads after the game.
• Viewers sent 10,000 tweets per second during the last 3 minutes of the game.
• Brands posting Super Bowl-related messages on Facebook before the game had 60% greater engagement with their pages.
• 57% of ads mentioned a website; 16% included prompts for Facebook or Twitter.
• Viewers used social media to talk to friends not in the room as well as those co-viewing the game.
• Advertisers used social media to send out teasers about their ads prior to the game.
• Coke streamed its Polar Bowl simultaneously with the game, and also responded in real time to viewer postings.
9. Criticisms and Controversies Surrounding Super Bowl Spots
Some Super Bowl spots elicit more than praise. They can actually stimulate significant controversies. A two-minute Chrysler ad that ran during the 2012 Super Bowl Halftime may have seemed innocent enough at first, but it became a political hot potato in the days following. The spot featured famed actor and director Clint Eastwood using a football metaphor to talk about America and the American economy.
It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.
The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again.
I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life. And, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems like we’ve lost our heart at times. When the fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead.
But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right, and acted as one. Because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one.
Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And, what’s true about them is true about all of us.
This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.
President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, called the ad “a powerful spot” in a tweet. Likewise, White House Communications Director Daniel Pfeiffer tweeted that saving America was something that “Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on.”46
Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, retorted, also in a tweet:
Why did Team Obama need to put this ad in a political context? That made it appear that the president was being rewarded with corporate ads by a corporation that received billions in taxpayer dollars they’ll never pay back. And guess what—maybe he was!47
Needless to say, in a year with an upcoming presidential election, the press had a heyday with the controversy. Even Clint Eastwood himself had something to say about the flap: “Take the commercial for what it is—a message about Americans’ ability to overcome our problems and march forward to a better future.”48
Another commercial drew fire from a competitor whose brand was mentioned in a commercial. In the Chevy Silverado spot already discussed, one of the actors asks, “Where’s Dave?” Another responds, “Dave didn’t drive the longest lasting, most dependable truck on the road. Dave drove a Ford.”
The invidious comparison of Chevy to Ford—even if there is statistical data on longevity of vehicles to support the claim of Chevy’s superiority—rankled Ford. Ford’s protest in turn brought media attention that may have benefited Chevy more in the long run.
In addition to such controversies, the Super Bowl has occasioned other criticism. This time it was for singer M.I.A.’s behavior in the halftime show. Earlier in 2004, in the infamous Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Janet Jackson’s exposed breast was said to have resulted from a “wardrobe malfunction.”49
10. The All-Time Best…and Worst…Super Bowl Commercials
After the last play on the field, the dissection of Super Bowl commercials begins. Various commentators, news organizations, websites, and the like publish their assessments of the best commercials (and often the worst as well). Scoring high in these lists is the aspiration of every Super Bowl advertiser, and those whose commercials are panned suffer a public shaming second to none.
The Super Bowl also comes with a lot of lore about the best and worst commercials from previous years. Apple’s “1984” commercial50 is invariably named as one of the best ever, while another Apple commercial51 that ran the following year is often named as one of the worst.
No event or time in the world of American advertising parallels the Super Bowl in the degree to which advertising becomes top of mind and enters so fully into public discourse. People talk, analyze, text, tweet, and post about them in a completely unprecedented manner. Yet, most of this commentary is about what is liked, memorable, humorous, and so on. Much less attention is devoted to the values and models of life and consumption that these mini-dramas present to us.
William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.
He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.
In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of more than 25 units published as supplements to A&SR.
1. © mike1111981. Used by permission. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mike1111981/6844871849/
3. Robert Lipsyte, “Four Reasons to Watch the Super Bowl,” last modified February 5, 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/02/20122413414398722.html.
4. The Super Bowl marks the end of the professional (American) football season, when the winners of the respective National Football Conference and American Football Conference playoffs play against one another for the National Football League championship.
5. The Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, site of the 2012 Super Bowl, accommodates 63,000 spectators.
6. Brian Steinberg, “Super Bowl Breaks Its Ratings Record Once Again: How Much Viewing Growth Remains for TV’s Biggest Spectacle?” AdAge, February 6, 2012, http://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/super-bowl-breaks-ratings-record/232563/.
7. “Gap Between Number Of Male, Female Super Bowl Viewers Is Shrinking,” Sports Business Daily, February 1, 2012, http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2012/02/01/Research-and-Ratings/SB-demos.aspx.
8. The gender gap is narrowing with each successive Super Bowl. Ibid.
9. The NFL has trademarked the term “Super Bowl” and therefore restricts its usage. Thus, many ads do not use the term directly but rather speak of “Super Sunday” or “the big game.”
11. There are women who watch the event because they are genuinely interested in the sport, but the celebration and events are nonetheless distinctively macho. If Christmas is understood as a celebration where women and women’s work take center stage in managing, decorating, present buying, and cooking, then the Super Bowl marks a kind of reversal where men are in the limelight as players and spectators. Such an observation is not meant to ignore the importance of the contributions that the roles typically played by both genders make to the performance of both celebrations, but rather to note the masculine versus feminine aura surrounding each.
12. See, for example, Justine Rivero, “My Dad’s Guide to Watching the Super Bowl,” in Forbes, February 3, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/moneywisewomen/2012/02/03/how-to-watch-the-super-bowl-with-dad/; Leah Garchik, “How Not To Watch the Super Bowl,” in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 2012, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/02/02/LVAT1MUUI0.DTL; and [NSFW]“Super Bowl Sunday Song,” YouTube video, uploaded by “booyapictures” on January 26, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg2QLgdWols.
13. Sports Illustrated, January 30, 2012.
14. Brian Steinberg, “Who’s Buying What in Super Bowl 2012: From Anheuser-Busch to Hulu and Volkswagen, How Ads Are Shaping Up for the Big Game,” AdAge, February 3, 2011[sic], http://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/buying-super-bowl-2012/231122/.
23. Mark Briner, February 6, 2012 (12:54 p.m.), reply to Kimberly McLeod, comment on “5 Worst Commercials of Super Bowl 2012,” Super Bowl Commercials, February 6, 2012, http://www.superbowl-commercials.org/14401.html.
26. Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010) DVD.
29. Any critical analysis of the Super Bowl must take note of the ways in which race, class, gender, and sexuality play themselves out in the event. First, all of the players, coaches, referees, and most of the commentators are men. Second, the majority of players are African-American,. Third, women have a distinctly second place in the Super Bowl, except perhaps as halftime entertainers and cheerleaders, and there is no parallel even in women’s sports that even comes close to garnering the attention given to the Super Bowl. The one place where things are more egalitarian is the social class of the audience. Super Bowl fans seem to come from all parts of society, although the franchise owners are very wealthy themselves. It does not take much effort to notice the extraordinary heteronormativity of the Super Bowl. There are never any openly gay players nor do any commercials ever feature LGBT people except in a derisive way so as to reinforce heteronormativity.
30. Michael Learmonth, “Fresh Numbers: Honda Won the Super Bowl Before It Even Began: Automakers Dominate Most-Watched Ads On the Web,” AdAge, February 6, 2012, http://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/honda-won-super-bowl-began/232543/.
32. Doug Henschen, “Coke Super Bowl Campaign Blends TV, Tablets And Smart Phones,” InformationWeek, January 30, 2012, http://www.informationweek.com/news/software/bi/232500677.
36. Henschen, “Coke Super Bowl Campaign Blends TV, Tablets And Smart Phones,” http://www.informationweek.com/news/software/bi/232500677.
37. Doritos’ “Sling Baby” Emerges as Most-Remembered and Best-Liked Super Bowl Ad, February 8, 2012. http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/media_entertainment/doritos-sling-baby-emerges-asnielsens-most-remembered-and-best-liked-super-bowl-ad/
40. David D. Burstein, “5 Lessons In Participatory Marketing From Doritos’ ‘Crash The Super Bowl’ And CMO Ann Mukherjee,” FastCompany’s Co.Create, http://www.fastcocreate.com/1679605/5-lessons-in-participatory-marketing-from-doritos-crash-the-super-bowl-and-cmo-ann-mukherjee.
43. Bruce Horovitz, Laura Petrecca, and Gary Strauss, “Super Bowl Ad Meter winner: Score one for the Doritos baby,” USA TODAY, February 8, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/money/advertising/story/2012-02-07/usa-today-facebook-super-bowl-ad-meter-winner/53004032/1.
46. During the previous Super Bowl, the rapper Eminem appeared in a commercial also praising the Detroit auto industry’s return from near-economic collapse. Eminem and Clint Eastwood are known to have differing political views.
47. Karl Rove, “Team Obama’s response to ‘Halftime in America’ ad should make you nervous,” FoxNews.com, February 07, 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/02/07/team-obamas-response-to-halftime-in-america-ad-should-make-nervous/.
48. Clint Eastwood, quoted in Mohamed A. El-Erian, “‘Half-Time in America’ Highlights Our Political Dysfunctionality,” Huffington Post, February 10, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mohamed-aelerian/halftime-in-america-highl_b_1269062.html.
49. “The Jackson incident resulted in the FCC going after CBS and inspired a broadcast-wide tightening of live telecast content standards (though, obviously, mistakes can still happen). Ironically, the NFL took over production of the annual Super Bowl halftime show after Jackson’s performance, to have better control of the content. An NFL spokesperson says M.I.A. did not perform the gesture during rehearsals.” James Hibberd, “M.I.A. Flips Middle Finger During Super Bowl Halftime Show—PHOTO,” Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 2012, http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/02/05/middle-finger-super-bowl-photo/.
51. Apple’s “Lemmings” spot presented the very consumers the company hoped to lure to their products as mindless people who followed the crowd off a cliff in the manner of lemmings. See “Apple – Lemmings” YouTube video, uploaded by “applejuice” January 4, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYP1Tjgt1Ao