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  • Writer's picturemartinliptrot

Getting the Message Right For SuperBowl

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

As politics starts to settle down into a more predictable routine, time to focus on my other US passions - sport, television and marketing.

I love sports but don't profess to be a huge follower of American Football. I'm happy to watch a game and I understand what's going on, but I don't have a passion for who wins or loses. Living in North Florida, I watch more College Football, but If I am a fan of any one NFL team it's The Jets, New York's habitual disappointment, so that probably explains a lot.

But, like the FA Cup Final used to be in England - with wall to wall coverage, pre-game shows, following the buses from the hotels, celebrity fans - The SuperBowl captures the nation's attention. And even if you don't watch the whole game, everyone watches the adverts!

I'm biased, I love adverts, but SuperBowl ads are the stuff of legend.

The TV audience is huge - in 2015 it reached 115million US viewers. Of the 20 all-time most viewed shows in US TV history, only the final episode of M*A*S*H wasn't a SuperBowl. For access to all those eyeballs, advertisers paid $5.6million last year for a 30-second half time slot, and USA Today ranks the Ads in the next day's paper.

Done right, the reputation of a firm or product - and the agency behind it - can be sky high. Apple's '1984' ad, Coke's 'Hey Kid! with "Mean Joe" Greene, and Budweiser's 'Clydesdales' and 'Croaking Frogs' campaigns always poll amongst the nation's favorites SuperBowl spots.

Done wrong - it can be terminal. Just for Feet, a sports shoe retailer, aired a SuperBowl ad in January 1998 which was so appallingly poor, with racist and drug-taking overtones, they were in bankruptcy by November.

The formula for SuperBowl ads is typically a celebrity endorsement - look out for Wayne and Garth, and Dolly Parton this year - humour, special effects and the highest cinemagraphic production quality. But this is 2021, nothing is typical anymore. COVID, Furloughed Jobs, Black Lives Matter, QAnon, Trump's Insurrection and Lonely Isolated Lockdowns are still shaping our collective experience, so how, if at all, will advertisers react?

It is already known who has bought these golden slots, even if the actual 'Ad' is still a closely guarded secret. Some firms who have been SuperBowl advertisers in the past have, it seems, opted to skip this year's extravaganza rather than explain to furloughed employees, distressed retailers and suppliers, why it has spent 8 figures on buying ad space, paying celebrity fees and Hollywood production costs for 30 seconds of fame. Not being part of all this excess is probably very wise, and welcomed, for firms who have more bad news to share than good. Airlines, Hotel Chains, Travel Websites all seem to have stepped back.

Worryingly, I expect some advertisers to produce commercials which will be referred to as 'Values' or 'Social Responsibility' spots, where they attempt to communicate what they are doing to help out in these trying times. I'm worried, not because it isnt a valid genre - just that I've seen it done so badly too many times.

Going 'Values' is a high risk decision. I've worked in advertising on the agency and consulting side and also lead on social responsibility policies for some huge blue chip companies, and in my experience, as many firms get it horribly wrong as manage to gauge it right.

Those who do get it right have something meaningful to say and a track record of doing it. Those who get it horribly wrong often appear to be bandwagonning or greenwashing for a 'me too' moment on an issue which they aren't acknowledged as being serious about or active on.

The other way to fail miserably is when the CMO, Creative Director or Brand Managers don't entirely give up on the commercial opportunity to sell stuff these showcase spots offer in 'normal' times resulting in a horrible hybrid of 'values' and 'product' spots appearing.

In part, this happens because for those 'in advertising' this is also their SuperBowl. The acclaim of the public and your peers, the chance to make something viewed by millions, to potentially become iconic, is too tantalising. But when a serious social message is treated the same way as a new improved formula of soap powder or a discount on web hosting it invariably becomes unpalatable to the viewer.

Plus, lets not forget, this competitive 20 minute window, isn't always ready to accept your social message. Coca Cola has had a few attempts to share its social values, but has not always had the reaction they expected. In 2014, the Atlanta-based soft drink manufacturer celebrated multiculturalism, diversity and same-sex couples. The 'Ad' - called 'It's Beautiful' - featured a multi-lingual singing of America The Beautiful which spawned a huge backlash with social media protests using the bewildering hashtag #SpeakAmerican.

So what do I expect to see this weekend? As well as Ads which are safely and simply product promotions, I will be looking out for the following four themes which I imagine will dominate the 'Values' messages.

  • "We're All in it Together" - Advertisers will want to tell their brand loyalists, customers and clients that they feel the collective pain and are doing something to help. Ads which profile the philanthropic gift giving, big dollar amounts to food banks, education charities and community groups will be highlighted. Pitfalls to watch out for? Now that we know all these Ads cost in excess of $10million each to make and air, the giftgiving had better be pretty substantial, don't get caught spending more on telling us how much you are helping instead of providing the actual or perceived help you are promoting.

  • "Look forward to the Good Old Days" - It may only be a year ago, but going shopping, eating out, vacations, going to the office, cinema or stadium seems like a lifetime ago. Advertisers will want to make sure you remember how much fun you used to have and how when it is safe again, you will be welcomed back. Look for the smiling barmaid, the stoic waiter, the unbending small business owner - all with an "It's going to be OK' twinkle in their eye. Beware the melancholic which makes us feel sad about who we are and what we are experiencing now.

  • "The Hero Ad" - Companies and brands will want to celebrate their role in the efforts and endeavours of others doing great things. 'Thank You' key workers, 'Our Gratitude' to carers and medical staff, "We Salute You" people who are making a difference. This is OK if you have a tangible relationship with these heroes - Clorox can congratulate cleaners and hospital orderlies, but "Cheers, this Bud's for You" may come across as a bit flippant if not handled just right.

  • "The Innovators" A number of advertisers will focus on how they have helped you get through this. Solutions which help you work from home, shop online, stay in touch with realtives, will all be presented by firms like Food Delivery Apps, Amazon and Online Retailers, Telecom and Software Providers, Banks and Credit Card Companies as their gift to you. However, if you are a furloughed shop worker, restaurateur or hospitality employee, this might get your gander up and leave you feeling resentful.

So settle back, chips and dips at the ready, a cold drink in hand. And enjoy the 60 minutes of huge men in crash helmets either side of the big show.

Martin Liptrot was Europe, Middle East and Africa CEO for Ogilvy & Mather PR, served as Managing Director of Global Communications for FedEx Corp, and was Director, Corporate Communications for Philip Morris International. Sometimes he watches TV just for the adverts, which drives his family crazy.

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