Why Did Cards Against Humanity Air (or Not Air) a Horrible Super Bowl Ad About a Potato?

Taking a shot at ad culture, and fake news

"Our strategy was to zig where everyone else zagged," the card game claims.

A Super Bowl ad cost more than $5 million per 30 seconds this year. It’s a price that, like HOA fees, always goes up and never down. With that price, expectations rise: This is one of the few times of year when people don’t leave the room during the ad break. They lean in.

Which raises the question of why somebody would take that expensive moment and what is, for once, a unified and adoring public—and create an ad simply showing a potato with the word “ADVERTISEMENT” written on it.

Because they’re Cards Against Humanity.

Doesn’t that feel like the longest 30 seconds ever? Here is one reaction to it:

And here is the result: “While we succeeded creatively, the advertisement showed a disappointing return on investment ($0), and we are now going out of business,” the brand writes in a Medium article titled “Why Our Super Bowl Ad Failed.”

That took a fast left turn.

There’s a lot we want to say about this, but let’s start here: This is a really Cards Against Humanity kind of stunt.

Late last year, it raised over $100,000 on Black Friday … and spent it digging a giant hole in Illinois. Years before, it released a $12 expansion pack that literally only contained a piece of poo. But it’s also tested pay-what-you-wish models, donated money to the Wikimedia Foundation, and created a full-ride scholarship for women in science.

In other words, it’s a brand for our time—complex and darkly, even morbidly funny, but with a tiny heart fastened neatly in the right place (if you squint).

The article—a wry sendup of ad land idol worship—dropped the day after the Super Bowl, bloody chum in a roving internet crowded with post-game analysis, ad leaderboards and catfights over hashtag counts and taglines.

It’s a compelling piece of fake news, though at least one publication took it seriously. And it does the job of both spreading, and putting in context, this weird potato stunt … because, in true fake-news fashion, it actually isn’t clear whether the ad aired anywhere at all. (It certainly didn’t air nationally on the Super Bowl. It’s possible—and we think, likely—it aired somewhere locally, probably during the pregame.)

Anyway, here are a few reasons why Cards Against Humanity claims it fucked up its “Super Bowl” campaign.

“We wasted time with establishment thinking.” (Familiar fuel for a typical #sorrynotsorry, found in LinkedIn posts ghostwritten for CEOs from ocean to ocean.) “To begin work on the ad, we hired a full-service integrated advertising agency called ‘Wieden+Kennedy,’ ” CAH writes, momentarily making us choke on our own spit.

“They wasted over six months of our precious time pitching concepts like people laughing while playing the game, and amusing card combinations coming to life on screen. Eventually, we realized that they were burdened by conventional thinking and fired them, but this left us with only 48 hours to complete the ad.”

Next, after supposedly firing W+K, they conducted “extensive market research which demonstrated that the American consumer loves potatoes.” The chart below accompanies this, but the writer never explains why CAH didn’t choose tomatoes instead. More room on a potato, maybe.

“The problem we failed to anticipate was that sports fans ultimately had trouble making the leap from ‘Super Bowl’ to ‘potato’ to ‘Cards Against Humanity,’ ” it continues. “This was a real lesson in humility.”

It goes on like that, hitting all the buttons of a “sincere” brand apology while slathering each trigger word in irony as thick as molasses in January. You’ve got “humility” in there, the ol’ “some things you can’t control”—and of course, “failure to trust our customers.”

But what elevates this to the sublime is how funny it is. It doesn’t so much punch strategic marketing think in the face as unveil how minute, self-important and tone-deaf it can be. In its best moments, we just laughed, and this was worth whole minutes of priceless Super Bowl ad time.

“Our strategy was to zig where everyone else zagged,” CAH says, sanctimonious as all hell. “We stand by this direction, but the market wasn’t ready for an ad with the courage to stand still in a world that moves.”