February 2000
s m u g
target audience
by Leslie Harpold


Your Ad Dollars Here

I used to worry that the man I might marry would be one of those Superbowl guys - the kind who paints his face in his favorite team's colors to watch the game even though he'd just be seeing it from his Barcalounger. Even if his favorite team wasn't actually in the Superbowl. So caught up in the sports fever that there would be a time each year, coinciding with the AFC playoffs I would lose his attention completely to working out his beer consumption to commercial breaks grid with a slide rule, so he could time refills and bathroom breaks, and the inevitable Superbowl widow girls' night out things that women are expected to do when the game is on. Now my worries are on a much greater scale.

It's now well known that Superbowl ads are the most expensive air time your multi millions can buy. Traditionally, advertisers have risen to the occasion by producing their most cinematic, innovative spots for debut during the big game. In a year when two teams no one really cared about made the Bowl, all people had to talk about was the advertising. Maybe people really do care about the Titans and the Rams, maybe it's just me who doesn't. My real fear is that this is merely a symptom of a much larger ill.

Football games take three hours on television. The game itself is what, 100 minutes or something? Add in timeouts, halftime, pregame and post game wrap ups and you're devoting slightly less time than is required by the Lawrence of Arabia Director's cut. Ads are between 15 and 60 seconds long. Most of them are 30 second spots. This year, an election year, the 34th Superbowl, which should have been full of talk about underdog teams making it to the gridiron and duking it out in a high scoring dramatic game, all people talked about were -- the ads.

I don't think it's because advertising has gotten so good it's eclipsed the power of a good sporting match, but I do fear the attention span of America has gotten so short the ads are all they are capable of digesting. Nonetheless, I tuned in.

The overwhelming theme was clear: the predominant theme was "look! we're multimillion dollar ads that don't know how to be ads!" and "We're terrible at being ads!" I think this is part of the New Sincerity I've been reading so much about. While I fully appreciate the thinking that went into the eTrade monkey ad (I want to see a monkey dance in mygaragee with grandpa!) watching the too self conscious ads did nothing but invoke a certain sense of shame on my part for opening myself to suchblatantt hucksterism. While the potential in these self referential spots could be leveraged to the advantage of the advertiser (e.g. we put so much effort into the product, we didn't have the time to make a killer ad), it's mostly used to execute halfhearted attempts to endear them to us using the more difficult to execute trick "We're goofy, like you!"

Unfortunately the message is mottled by the reminder of the expense of those ads. Anyone who has two million dollars to blow is not really like me in any way. Which takes them out of the realm of the happily goofy to the idle rich. That's all fine and good for now, during this economic boom time, but the wrong message for brands to build who expect to have any longevity the gravy trains finally have to come back in to refuel.

I do like to be entertained as much as the next person though, and I did like watching the spots. Next year, maybe they'll just cancel the Superbowl and show the ads instead, after all, that's all anyone seemed to care about anyway.



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