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Advertising on the Super Bowl? Save Your Money

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Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first, shall we? First, the Super Bowl gets about 90 million viewers-maybe 150 million. Or a gabillion. Whatever the head count, it's a bigger audience than any other media venue can give you.

Second, those hoards of watchers purportedly translate to a big bang for your advertising dollar. Third: Watching commercials made especially for the big game has become a spectator sport nearly on par with the big game itself. And finally, as they chew their Cool Ranch Doritos and stare saucer-eyed at their jumbo, flat-screen, high-def TVs, these fans represent the broadest demographic you can possibly imagine.

Well, forgive me for dropping the remote in the onion dip, but I have to counter this branding fantasy with a point that's less obvious. Allow me to consult my gilt-edged copy of the Sacred History of Marketing. Ah-here's the passage: "Lo, though many eyeball watcheth thy costly commercials, it doth not effective advertising make."

In other words, it's long been appropriate -- and more appropriate than ever-to ask: "Is a Super Bowl buy giving me a big bang, or am I pouring millions into a black hole?"

Now, it's fair to say that the Super Bowl advertiser is buying a chance at getting attention that transcends the game itself. After all, the ads no longer play opposite the spectacle, they're part of it, so there's social capital to be made the next day at office water coolers across the nation. (A note here to our Word-of-Mouth and Buzz brethren: Buzz comes in two frequencies: positive and negative. "Wasn't that terrible?" "What were they trying to say?" and "That was the most boring thing I've ever seen" were never phrases that appeared in the creative brief.) But if we set aside the messy issue of measuring breakthrough, we arrive at a cold and clinical question that postgame buzz cannot address.

Chatter aside, did that flashy, cinematic, multimillion-dollar ad actually do anything for the brand? This, friends, is not a question of eyeballs. It's a matter of engagement -- viewer engagement with a brand. You know, that thing the ad is supposed to do in the first place?

The argument put forward every year is that it pays to reach a demo as huge and varied-by gender, income, profession, etc. -- as the one tuned into the Super Bowl. And that argument appeals to advertisers who believe they can simultaneously "message" a shared audience. Got it. All true. Unfortunately, this logic says absolutely nothing about whether or not the message matters to those consumers, or whether it brought them closer to the brand in some meaningful way.

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