The Consumer Republic: Lights! Camera! Ads!

I’m not much of a football fan (in my house the Super Bowl is known as the Stupid Bowl), but even I can see that this year’s Big Game matchup packs some entertainment value.
Green Bay is a marquee name, a defending champion and, as an emblem of football as it used to be, still a sentimental favorite. On the “thrill of victory/agony of defeat” meter, perennial also-rans Denver and John Elway are off the scale. If the Broncos triumph, they’ve won redemption. If they lose, they officially become the Boston Red Sox of football. And the AFC, to whose miserable Super Bowl record the team has generously contributed, will sink further into pre-Joe Namath status. Either way, it makes good drama.
But why am I wasting your time talking about football? As if the point of the Super Bowl were the game! Advertising is what makes the Super Bowl a huge TV event, not the other way around.
Which is not to say that people actually watch the game to see the ads. (Although I suspect that overall, more viewers like advertising than football.) It’s the audience’s expectation-often disappointed-that they’re going to be rewarded for gathering in such great numbers with great ads. And that keeps them gathering in great numbers. Marketing itself is a spectator sport.
Even if the game turns out to be another NFC blowout snore, viewers can count on a few blockbuster spots to chew on around the watercooler the day after. Just when this role reversal took place is hard to pinpoint. The key event was no doubt Apple’s Big Brother-busting “1984.” Safe to say, the legend that surrounds “1984” far outstrips the audience impact it had during its brief on-air moment. On the other hand, more people remember that Apple ad than who played in the 1984 Super Bowl. In the Super Bowl’s flowering as mega-entertainment, 1984 was a crucial year-and the game had nothing to do with it.
The publicity machine surrounding Super Bowl advertising is now as familiar and as ritualized as the media buildup to the game. First comes the Naming of the Price, in which the world learns how much the cost of 30 seconds has gone up from the year before ($1.3 million this year, up $100,000 from 1997). The advertisers are announced and, in the days before the game, their ads are strategically released to the press to catch some pre-event buzz.
Then there’s the Gathering of the Eyeballs, Super Bowl Sunday itself, followed by the Post-Game Highlights, a 24-hour period when the commercial hits and misses are repeatedly shown for free on the news and mentioned on every syndicated radio show. Meantime, local newspaper columnists and cable news networks with a .3 rating seek out advertising journalists to play Monday morning quarterback.
That’s a lot of attention for $1.3 million. Yet the bond between the Super Bowl and its commercials is so strong, that even advertisers that don’t appear on the Super Bowl can win super exposure. Who can forget Master Lock’s memorable nonappearance in last year’s Super Bowl, when the news that it was dropping out of the game got more ink than several other advertisers received from being in it?
This year, the Super Bowl nonadvertiser honor might go to Vivus, the pharmaceutical company. Not your everyday prime-time advertiser, Vivus planned to use the Super Bowl to launch its first consumer campaign for its impotence drug, a micro-suppository that’s inserted into the penis.
Marketed under the soothing name of Muse, it was a natural for the great conclave of penises that is football’s biggest game. But NBC refused to take it on the grounds that prime-time audiences aren’t ready to deal with “erectile dysfunction.” Today, Vivus is taking its case to the public, distributing via satellite a video news release deploring NBC’s decision, and including the objectionable text-only ad: “Attention impotent men. All 20 million of you” (Not exactly the Bud Bowl). I can see the evening news tune-in promos now: “The Super Bowl ad NBC didn’t want you to see! Film at 11!”
Yet if the Super Bowl is the national holiday of advertising, it is also a yearly reminder of how much the industry remains in denial about the fundamental and continuing trend of audience fragmentation.
The result, of course, is that the cost of the Super Bowl will always go up. It’s why the networks agree to pay mind-boggling prices for NFL packages, why billions are spent locking in Olympics rights into the fourth millennium and why ruinous
bidding wars are engaged over the meager number of prime-time shows that still deserve the name “mass” entertainment.
It is also why, despite the ritualistic posturing, advertisers will foot the bill. Though many ads constantly flatter consumers with tributes to their uniqueness, what advertising fears most is an audience of individuals.