Super Bowl Ads: Amateur Hour

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

Do Super Bowl ads still matter? If you’re the network selling them, sure (CBS got a reported $2.6 million per 30 seconds this year). And the spots get a lot of attention–for a day or two. But as a pop-cultural force, the TV commercial may be, like the evening news, a pricey vestige of the mass-media era. In the days of TiVo and nichecasting, MySpace and spam, how often does any TV spot become a big, Energizer Bunny–big, part of mass culture? What recent commercial could you imagine Hillary Clinton citing in a debate, as Walter Mondale did “Where’s the Beef?” in 1984? “If I were to ask you your two favorite commercials ever,” says Joseph Jaffe, author of Life After the 30-Second Spot, “they would probably both be over 20 years old.”

The closest thing to a mass breakout ad last year wasn’t on TV, and neither its audience nor creators realized it was an ad. The Diet Coke and Mentos Experiments, the hit online videos in which the cola and mint explosively combined, were entertainment, but they were also effective product placements: Mentos saw a 15% jump in sales. Inspired, advertisers from Converse to MasterCard to Butterball invited consumers to concoct ads. Internet fan spots created the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon (even if seeing the actual movie then killed it). Echoing a certain magazine’s choice of You (as in -Tube) as its Person of the Year, Advertising Age made the Consumer its Agency of the Year.

Now the Super Bowl is being invaded by the YouMercial. Doritos invited consumers to upload their own 30-second ads (at It got more than 1,000 submissions; the winner will air, unedited, during the first quarter. “Our consumers”–read, young people–“have a need to express themselves and interact,” says Frito-Lay vice president of marketing Ann Mukherjee. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to express their passion about how they interact with Doritos.” (I interact with Doritos using my mouth, but hey, whatever turns you on.) Chevrolet and the NFL invited amateurs to pitch Super Bowl ad ideas (to be shot by pros), while Alka-Seltzer held an American Idol–style contest to rewrite its Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz jingle, the winner to debut during the pregame.

One can see why advertisers want to join in the You-phoria. They’re as nervous as any old-media sector about getting attention in the Internet age. “They’re out of ideas,” says Mark Stevens, author of Your Marketing Sucks. But why would consumers want to pitch stuff to themselves? It’s like a pig entering a BBQ cook-off.

Some, of course, want jobs (several entrants study marketing or work in the film or ad business), but that hardly lends itself to the authentic fan spirit that the contest holders say they want. Some subjects are just made for fan ads–a sport, a place, a movie–but who has a “passion” for a nacho chip, a frozen turkey or a credit card? Very few people, which is why a whole industry exists to create emotional associations: snacks with fun, food with family, debt with love.

People do have a passion for fame and media exposure, though, and that has proved to be the peanut butter to the anxious ad industry’s chocolate. Small surprise then, at how well the clever Doritos finalists, for all their lo-fi production, echo the old tropes of professional Super Bowl ads: funny animals, slapstick and double entendres. There’s a future for You in the ad game, if You are this good at aping Them.

But it doesn’t exactly square with the idealistic lingo advertisers use to discuss consumer-created ads: “authenticity,” “bringing the consumer into the conversation,” “crashing the Super Bowl.” For all the populist, techno-utopian rhetoric, the upshot is someone giving cheap labor to a rich company. (Five Doritos finalists won $10,000 each, a net payout of less than 50 bucks an entrant.) Turning the Internet into a global intern pool has made some funny ads, but that doesn’t equal empowered customers. “If you want to talk to your consumer, talk to them,” says Stevens. “Ask them why they’re not eating your chips.”

The most famous Super Bowl ad played into the notion of consumer empowerment: Apple’s “1984” ad, which depicted a renegade hurling a hammer through a giant TV image of a dictator. The rebel, of course, smashed only a picture, not Big Brother himself, and so it is with the new cadre of citizen-salesmen. The Super Bowl ad party may be admitting the masses this year, but don’t expect them to arrive with a crash. More like a ka-ching.

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