Column: The Consumer -- We're Bowled Over, Again

  • by February 23, 2006
An old friend used to lament the lack of discipline in advertising theory by saying that if we approached the physical sciences in the same way we approach the advertising sciences, we'd still think the world was flat and the moon was made of cheese. Harsh, perhaps, but fair. There is no doubt that most theories about how advertising work are based on anecdote and feeling rather than real evidence. Which brings me to my favorite example of evidence that contradicts current theory: the Super Bowl.

Now, I'm sticking my neck out a little here. The truth about a monthly column is that as I write, I haven't even celebrated the holidays, and yet I have to make projections about Super Bowl XL, which will be airing on February 5.

But here goes: I predict that the Super Bowl will be wildly popular. It will be the single largest media event of the year in the U.S. and people all over the country will be talking about the TV advertising that airs during the game. I predict that the discussions about the advertising will have started by the time you get this magazine (assuming that's sometime around the end of January). It's very likely that a couple of commercials will have been leaked in one way or another and that they'll be downloaded and passed along with abandon.

I further predict that at least one spot will already have been banned, and that the controversy will have people seeking out the offending advertisement (à la last year's stunt). There will be opinion polls in national newspapers to determine which Super Bowl commercial is America's sweetheart. The results will draw comment from pundits in a variety of media. Trade magazines will join the debate with glee, commenting on whether this year's crop was better than last year, and whether the collective creativity on display signals the decline of the advertising industry or its renaissance.

Now, if we relied too much on anecdotal commentary about the advertising industry, this would make no sense. After all, we've heard that the mass market has died and that nobody likes TV commercials anymore. But it just doesn't seem to bear scrutiny, does it? At least not where the Super Bowl is concerned. The most watched Super Bowl ever was seven years ago, and its ratings are pretty much the same every year, give or take. Somewhere around 80 million people will be watching at any given time, with 140 million or so tuning in for at least part of it. Forgive the analogy (I've used it before), but 80 million is equal to the combined populations of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, and Belgium.

Now, if that isn't a mass audience, I'll eat my hat. And guess what: They like commercials. Every year, 50,000 of them vote in USA Today's Super Bowl Ad meter, and millions check the results to see how their favorite ad fared.

There are two conclusions we can draw from this. First, contrary to popular opinion, there are still large media audiences, and second, they like the kind of advertising that appears on the Super Bowl -- you know, the funny kind. The kind that tries to entertain rather than sell, that tries to seduce more than it tries to persuade. Come to think of it, that's not a bad starting place for a new theory of how advertising works. Do advertising that people like and they'll like you for doing it.

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