Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Heraclitus has the last word on Super Bowl dud coms
As a native of St. Louis, I watched the Super Bowl more interested in the game than in the ads. Which is to say I used the commercial breaks for the purpose God intended: going to the bathroom and getting a beer. It turned out to be a good decision. From what I saw, Super Bowl XXXIV was a blowout: football fans, 35; ad fans, 3.
Just as the wags predicted, much of the “dud com” advertising was an unmemorable blur. Even the well-received spots from Pets.com and E*Trade missed the mark set by their everyday campaigns.
A bigger problem is I cannot decide which was the more alarming symptom of our holy winter rite’s decadence: the halftime revelers-cum-worshippers robed in neo-Flying Nun habits or the celebration of ineffectual advertising during the commercial breaks? Remember that joke in the E*Trade spot about wasting $2 million on a Super Bowl ad? It wasn’t so funny in context.
True, the Web advertisers, loathe to admit they wasted a media buy four times the size of their revenue stream, beg to differ. They point to traffic increases on their sites in the wake of the game. If that’s all you want for your money, then Lifeminders.com (a 340 percent traffic increase, according to Media Matrix) was right: You can throw junk on the screen during the game and get a pop.
This thought should give ad pros pause. Although the broadcast is hailed as the Olympiad of creativity, the game is not about the power of great ads. It is a demonstration of the power of public relations.
There is a mini-fad rippling through the wacky world of business books that urges 21st-century managers to take their cues from Aristotle or Shakespeare. In the wake of the dud coms, I offer another philosopher-consultant for our times: Heraclitus of Ephesus. It was Heraclitus who observed 2,500 years ago, “You can’t step in the same river twice.”
Etch it on the white boards in your war rooms. Use it as a screen saver. The folly of the $2.2 million dot.com spots lies in ignoring these watchwords, as true today as they were at the dawn of Western rationality.
We’ve heard ad nauseum the saga of Monster.com, the unknown Web site whose fortunes on Main Street and Wall Street were made in 30 seconds on the Super Bowl. The Internet gang that descended on ABC this year wanted to make a splash in that same stream. No one succeeded, Monster.com included, because, as Heraclitus noted, it cannot be done. Any event ineluctably alters the conditions that allowed it to occur in the first place. The water just keeps flowing.
But then, who am I kidding?
This wisdom has been around for over two millennia, and no one in advertising, or any of its sister entertainment industries, has yet to learn it. What is the cult of the Super Bowl ad but an attempt to step in the same river that baptized Macintosh computers in 1984? That feat has never been duplicated–and never will be.
A sitcom featuring young singles in the city is a ratings hit? Flood the schedule. Audiences like low-cost magazine shows? Air them nightly. A game show puts the “mass” back into mass TV? Produce them by the handful. The inevitable upshot of this reasoning is lots of underperforming shows, steeped in mediocrity.
The entertainment business persists in its doomed bid to prove Heraclitus wrong. As the man himself put it, “Many do not take heed of the things that they meet, nor do they mark them when they are taught–though they think they do.”
Heraclitus also wrote, “Good and ill are one.” Which is as pithy a way as any to sum up the contradictory impact of new media on old advertising. Yes, businesses on the minutely fragmented Internet do need the broader exposure traditional media provide. Yet at the same time, the dot.com frenzy highlights the weaknesses of advertising: its vulnerability to clutter and its inflationary pressures that decrease its value to the client over the long run. Not to mention showcasing advertisers’ inability to learn from past mistakes.
Judging from the results of Christmas 1999 and Super Bowl 2000, the first, ecstatic phase of the romance between new-media clients and advertising is ending. When it is over, it will be so over. You can’t step in the same river twice.