It's true, individual ads are hit or miss, as reviews in AdAge, New York Times and Slate will tell you. Each review will have had a positive or negative effect on the sales of a particular product or service. But for one of the ads, which probably received the most pregame buzz, those golden seconds of airtime during the Super Bowl were dedicated to advancing a chaste position, while in fact not selling anything.
So if managing a brand or brand image is the main purpose of these ads, or taking a "moral" stance in the case of the Focus on the Family Tebow spot, are Super Bowl ads also influenced by larger factors than the ad itself? I would argue yes. Contrary to what Big Advertising will have us think, these crazily expensive Super Bowl ads might never be as effective at advancing a company's message -- particularly when it is about something as personal and polarizing as abortion -- as a great PR campaign could be.
In other words, the nuclear option doesn't work for everyone.
That's because an ad's efficacy in terms of brand and messaging can be directly affected and diluted, simply by association. Join the ranks of other advertisers and earn the label of a 'Super Bowl Ad' -- your brand becomes ¬one of them. And the overall theme of any given year's Super Bowl ads can also infect or amplify a message or brand image.
This may seem a little esoteric -- we're only talking about ads, right? And, after all, the ads are mostly just brilliantly crafted, funny nuggets of intra-game entertainment. But in the process of watching them, some subtle themes emerged. One theme, which nearly every commentator that covers this sort of thing has mentioned, was recapturing masculinity. The best ad of the night, for the Dodge Charger, struck this chord resoundingly. Whether it did so appropriately, or politically correctly, is for another column.
The other theme that jumped out at me was nostalgia. Aimed at both Boomers and later generations, ads that incited a strong sensation of nostalgia were as prevalent as those inciting men's fear of emasculation. Pop culture redux with advertisers trotting out the fictional Griswolds (from the "Vacation" films), aging rock bands (Kiss, halftime performers The Who), the '85 Bears (with a new version of their Super Bowl shuffle), the old game of punch-buggy, and even a news clip montage set to "My Generation." Which generation are we targeting here exactly?
But even the ads that are outliers of the above themes, i.e., macho, retro, will still be tarred with the same brush -- and that is my point. Taking on a tint of nostalgia may prove beneficial for Budweiser, even if none of its ads aimed for nostalgic notes, but not necessarily for another advertiser. Likewise, the taint of reclaimed masculinity could be great for Audi or Honda, which did not follow Dodge into chest-banging territory, but not for Dove. By taking part in the Super Bowl ad blitz, these advertisers have ceded some measure of control over their message. And for smaller advertisers, who've invested their entire budget for this loss of control, it excludes from being able to take part in more controllable strategies, like PR. Why? Because they've spent all their money.
My take is that the companies hoping for targeted, effective messaging were disappointed by advertising during the Super Bowl. The game is a broad-stroke business: the audience is broad, the influence of themes is broad, all those zeroes for airtime are broad.
You just can't control it.
For some companies and brands, broad is what they need. But for a company or organization betting a large chunk of their advertising and marketing budget on it, broad may not be effective. Was it effective for the Tebow spot? Absolutely not.
For these companies, it may be time to reconsider the nuclear option. You need to think about who you're getting into the mixing bowl with.