Why Super Bowl Spots Are Often Disappointing

Yes, I know you’re sick of reading about the Super Bowl spots. But we need to address the sense of letdown many people felt last Sunday in order to forestall such a mishap in 2005.

For starters, we didn’t hear many people last week saying, “The commercials are better than the game.” It’s a statistical fluke, though, that this catch phrase took hold in the first place. In the five Super Bowls starting with 1984’s (i.e., when the game assumed its role as creative showcase), the average margin of victory was 27.6 points. The smallest gap was 19 points. These games were duds, so it’s easy to see how the “commercials-are-better” idea took root. By contrast, the margin of victory in the five most recent games has averaged 13.4 points, with three games decided by 7 points or less. This has set a standard of excitement that’s harder for the spots to match.

Progress in product quality—and relative stasis in ad quality—creates another problem, unrelated to the games themselves. Among the 10 most popular spots as measured by USA Today’s annual Ad Meter, nine were for no-tech products that have changed little if at all in years. (Beer and soda dominated this end of the list.) Scoring in the lower half of the class were FedEx, IBM, Expedia, Monster, Cialis and Levitra—i.e., brands whose products weren’t nearly as good (or hadn’t even been invented) 20 years ago. Part of the gap in the spots’ popularity has to do with mere familiarity. But this pattern may also relate to the relative quality of product and ad. If you could calculate a numerical ratio in which the quality of the commercial is divided by the quality of the product, it would be stable (or even slightly improving) for the likes of Budweiser and Pepsi. No matter how highly you might think of IBM’s current advertising, though, it would be absurd to deny that the ratio of commercial quality to product quality has plummeted over the years—simply because IBM’s computers have become vastly better for the money during that period. Such brands benefit from ads that convey information about their better-and-better products, but Super Sunday isn’t a very congenial environment for delivering facts (as opposed to images). As such, Super Bowl spots for such products are hard-pressed to play to the advertisers’ strengths.

One last problem: Viewers pay attention to Super Bowl spots. Now, you might say that’s a good thing. And, indeed, it would be if the spots were crafted accordingly. But that’s not the way the ad business is oriented these days. Commercials are now engineered first and foremost to cut through the clutter. Since this is the one day of the year when viewers are predisposed to pay attention, though, the spots should be tailored to do something useful with the attention they’re bound to get. Perhaps because ad agencies are out of practice in addressing an attentive audience, the commercials mostly weren’t up to that job.