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I Analyzed Super Bowl Ads for Two Decades. Here’s What They Get Wrong.

6 minute read

I’ve watched more Super Bowl commercials—for a living—than just about anyone.

But I’m not an ad executive. I’m not a commercial director. And I’m not a film editor.

For almost two decades, I was the lead writer who, along with my editor, oversaw pulling together much of USA TODAY’S iconic Ad Meter. Now in its 34th year, Ad Meter is still widely regarded as the unofficial authority on the Big Game’s top commercials. With sponsors paying roughly $7 million per 30-second slot, there’s a deeply held belief among Super Bowl advertisers that nothing on the planet is more important than creating the game’s “winning” commercial which, advertisers are convinced, will result in PR Nirvana and, yes, higher sales.

But after six years away from the Ad Meter fray — and a pandemic in-between — something hit me the other day that hadn’t fully entered my Super Bowl ad-obsessed mind: Super Bowl commercials are mostly a bunch of hooey.

The secret to a happy life isn’t in drinking a Bud Lite. Or driving a BMW. Or (sorry, Jeff Bezos), owning an Amazon Prime account.

What matters is the company we keep. No, not the folks we rub shoulders with at a once-a-year Super Bowl beer-fest. But those folks we actually care about — and who care about us — day in and day out.

Madison Avenue is desperately trying to teach us otherwise. They want us to believe that a fad diet will somehow make us a better person. They want us to buy into the falsehood that we can actually find sublime happiness by placing a legal bet on a sporting event. They want us to think that there is existential bliss in punching a few digits on our phone and having touch-less food delivered to our doorstep.

For years, I flew all over the country to attend, observe, and write about Super Bowl ad shoots. These ads featured celebs from Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali to Danica Patrick. Many Super Bowl advertisers are utterly convinced that the secret ingredient to a ‘winning’ Super Bowl ad is a hot-shot celebrity. Wrong. Others swear by farm animals, adorable dogs, or wide-eyed babies. Wrong, again. A great Super Bowl ad isn’t about who or what appears in it. A truly great Super Bowl ad must tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle, and an unexpected ending that, more often than not, plucks the heartstrings.

In the end, however, most Super Bowl ads feed the ego but starve the soul. They are written and rewritten by committee. They are psychoanalyzed so closely by company executives that by the time they are finally broadcast they need a vacation from themselves. As part of my work, I got to know Joe Pytka, arguably the most successful Super Bowl commercial director of all time, who at 83-years-old is still working. On the sets of his Super Bowl commercial shoots, he often insisted on setting up a basketball court so that he could work-off the stress between takes. I pulled him aside once and asked him if he films Super Bowl ads in a cosmically different manner from other ads. “It’s all bulls—t,” he responded, in Pytkaesque fashion. “A great ad is a great ad.”

Even so, the pandemic reminded me that there are more important things.

It helped me realize that the most meaningful email I send out each day isn’t the one that lands me another freelance writing gig, but the one to my youngest daughter, Becca, some 3,000 miles away at college, that reminds her I love her; or the email I send to my oldest daughter, Rachel, a vet school candidate, that reminds her I’m right by her side.

It taught me that my favorite moment of each day is when I push back from my desk at 3:45 PM, clasp the leash around our pooch, Maui, and hoof-it to the neighborhood park where I meet my wife, Evelyne, on her way home from the middle school where she’s a special ed classroom aide. It made clear that unexpected phone calls with my buddies in California and Cleveland are far more life-affirming than a new brew, a new set of wheels, or the UPS truck pulling in front of my house.

With an assist from the pandemic, I also finally learned the lesson that’s been sitting smack in front of me for so many years: Giving beats getting.

That, of course, is the flip side of what the nation’s biggest and highest-spending marketers will be shouting from their Super Bowl-infused mountaintops on Sunday.

Why did it take a pandemic for me to figure this out?

Perhaps because during the pandemic I wasn’t just cut off from friends and siblings, but from the three days of volunteer work that gave me peace of mind. No more Mondays working the welcome desk at the county park visitors center. No more Wednesday afternoons helping to prepare and distribute meals at the homeless shelter. No more Friday mornings distributing food at the food bank.

Things recently opened up a bit, so I’ve returned to my Friday food bank gig. But I’m sure missing the other two.

My grandmother, Beatrice, never saw a Super Bowl or a Super Bowl ad. But for decades, well into her eighties, she found inner bliss as the go-to-gal whose volunteer mission was to cheer-up anxious pre-and post-surgery patients, whom she wheeled through the cold corridors at one of Cleveland’s biggest hospitals. Some of the plaques and trophies she received as a testament were passed along to me after she died years ago. But she didn’t do it for the awards. She did it for the emotional goosebumps she felt every time she showed up.

It didn’t take a pandemic for her to figure that out. It took a heart.

If you watch The Big Game on Sunday and its 50-odd commercials so desperately trying to sell you on their buy-it-all formula for happiness, remember that happiness doesn’t come in a 12-ounce beer can; a driver’s seat that doubles as a massage chair, or an Amazon Prime box.

It comes in what you give.

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