February 04, 2014

Product Advertising And The Super Bowl

For the last few years, whining about the lousy quality of Super Bowl spots has become de rigueur among advertising observers.

While I hate to be non-contrarian, I'm afraid these people are right.

I'm sure there are a number of reasons for this. But I have a feeling that behind this phenomenon there's something going very, very wrong.

I believe that most agencies have bought into the idea that TV advertising is a dying category and the web is where they need to invest.

The result is that ad schools, ad agencies, and ad leaders are primarily looking for creative people with web skills. My experience with web creative skills is that they are substantially tactical. There is simply not much creativity behind most web advertising. I know, I know, every now and then someone does something wonderful on the web. But most of it is pure awful.

On the web there are two kinds of advertising: direct response, and "branding." The direct response stuff wants clicks. The branding stuff wants "engagement."

As far as I'm concerned, direct response and branding are the two least important types of advertising. The most important type of advertising is product advertising -- advertising that tells you why you need a product.

That type of persuasive, eloquent advertising is no longer to be found in the Super Bowl.

Ten years ago, Super Bowl advertising was heavily laden with direct response spots -- virtually every spot ended with a website it wanted you to go to. (The idiocy that TV spots should be about sending people to websites has, thankfully, died.)

Now Super Bowl advertising is all about "branding." It wants you to love the brand because the brand is fun or irreverent or is associated with some unassailable virtue like America or diversity.

It has always been my opinion that in most categories strong brands are built on great product advertising, not "branding." But it is virtually impossible to find a compelling product benefit in any Super Bowl spot anymore.

Product advertising is not just the type of advertising least commonly found on the web, it is now also the type of advertising rarely found on the Super Bowl.

I don't think that's a coincidence. I believe this fact is substantially responsible for the state of Super Bowl advertising, and TV advertising in general.

The web-first chickens are coming home to roost.


Martin Headon said...

The aim of the TV ad doesn't have to be either selling a product, or making you LOVE the brand. It can be as simple as making you remember the brand the next time you think "I need to buy a beer for the party" or "I hate my car".

Though of course, there's crossover - a great product ad can also make people remember the brand. But some of the greatest and most successful advertising ever done says absolutely nothing about the product in question.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Hmm. I think it's more a symptom of talent drain that any farcical – however probable – crusade for web. The industry has treated creatives like shit since the Holding Companies came in. Most agencies would rather make things cheaper than make them better.

The problem with the spots isn't that they're written by web-mad writers. The problem is that the quality of ideas in the advertising industry, taken as an average, has plummeted. Some of this may be the no-longer-nascent trend of clients micromanaging creative and agencies just nodding dutifully and producing shit. Most of it, I think, is due to the fact that writers see this business and immediately bail the fuck out.

Note also that TV writing has improved DRAMATICALLY in the same time frame. Good writers are going elsewhere. Hell, the writer of Juno was an ad writer. Were her ads any good? Who knows, but I'll bet she's not writing them anymore.

Jonathan Rodgers said...

So, so, so true. Couldn't agree more with your post. For the past ten years agencies have said "we need people who understand digital." All good, and frankly, necessary. Digital is a valuable part of a brand's arsenal these days.

But the plumbers have taken over for the poets, to quote a CD who wrote that two years ago. It's led to the mass extermination of creatives who understood TV - or more specifically, the medium of film. Clearly few do now.

I think in addition to your reasons above for forgettable TV, young creatives haven't mined their power of insight and observation. Not surprising when a whole generation has their face buried in a tiny screen. (Tip: Next time you're in an elevator, don't pull out your phone - listen to conversations, observe mannerisms, keep your eyes and ears open. In fact do that everywhere, often.) Great TV writing requires insight - about people and about brands. It requires finding human truths - and how those connect people to brands. (As you wrote, "Why do I need this?")

It also requires a hell of lot of experience to navigate the whole production process: how to cast well, how to get what you need before you walk off a set, how to edit, and not least of all, how to empower the many collaborators who contribute to the film process while at the same time bringing your singular vision to life. (It matters that you HAVE a vision.)

My screens for doing great TV? Could only my brand have done this spot? Have I put a real stake in the ground? Will people know what to think when they have seen this spot? Will they remember it long after? (I'm talking years in some cases.) Will they want to watch it twenty times? If it's supposed to be comedy, do people actually laugh? (This is important - if it's funny, people laugh. Out loud.)

I think the worm will turn for brands and agencies. Because a massive amount of money is being wasted on pathetic, forgettable advertising. Soon, I wouldn't be surprised to hear, "We need people who understand TV." I hope that's not just wishful, or wistful, thinking.

Well, if any agency or brand needs someone who actually understands TV, who's done what you wished you had seen on this years Superbowl, check out rodgerscreative.com

Bob, I think even you would approve :)

Keep fighting the good fight.

Jay R said...

Regardless of the web...

Creative people don't want to work in advertising anymore. Once upon a time it was a semi-respectable place where you could make a decent living being creative. Now? You can go into business for yourself, you can team up with an engineer and build a website or product, you can write for HuffPo, etc. Point is, there are way better outlets for creative people than there used to be. They don't want to go work for a publicly traded agency and take six sigma courses on how to pump out TV spots like it's an assembly line. It's far from being glamorous, fun or rewarding (and I think you've written the same in the past).

Jim said...

Kind of. But there is a reason why the want you to remember their product. It's so you may buy it when you are in a position to buy a beer. To work that (brand) beer has to be in your mind and physically available too.

Ads that say absolutely nothing about the product are common today. Few are great.

Jimi Bostock said...

Sadly, I didn't get to see the game with ads down here in OZ. But I understand the text driving ad for T-Mobile was aired.

If so, I spotted it as probably the one ad that would have an immediate positive effect on the client's business.

Do you agree?


Nathan U said...

Why doesn't "Bob" ever respond to posts or interact with his posters?

Guest said...

"There is simply not much creativity behind most web advertising."

even worse. they put 90sec version of TV ad on YouTube and call it web advertising.

bob hoffman said...


I don't like it when the blogger always has the last word.

Also, would take up too much time.

Also, I believe in the saying, "never explain, never defend."