Advertising outside the echo chamber

Andrew Frank, VP analyst at Gartner, looks as the lessons to be learned from this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads. 

You know the story. Today’s digital media is charged with fragmenting and polarizing our culture beyond recognition by isolating us in social filter bubbles. It’s personalized and tribalized our experiences until we no longer live in the same reality as our neighbors. And it’s all about selling more persuasive advertising by relentlessly tracking and targeting our affinities and intents.

How refreshing then, that, once a year, advertisers take a break from all this precision targeting and conversion-rate optimization to return to their Mad Men roots with creative executions designed to play to a national audience. Despite recent declines in NFL viewership, with about 100m viewers expected, no other event can gather so much of our fractured country into a single, rapt audience as the Super Bowl.

Still, this year’s advertiser challenge is particularly daunting: how to come up with a meaningful, inspiring brand message that resonates broadly with a divided nation on-edge in an election year, while avoiding the withering outrage that follows the slightest misfire.

Strong demand
And yet, defying the death-knell of mass media, advertiser demand for Super Bowl ads was surprisingly strong this year. In November, Fox reported its Super Bowl LIV inventory sold out earlier than it has for the past nine years – at record prices as high as $5.6m (£4.2m) per 30-second spot according to Ad Week. This lines up with Gartner research that indicates CMOs upped their investments in paid media from 23 per cent to 26 per cent of their total marketing budgets in 2019, and their commitment to TV remained solid, even though overall marketing budgets dropped for this first time since 2014. How can we explain all this?

Ironically, rather than cannibalizing Super Bowl ad investments, digital media has greatly amplified their reach, frequency, and impact. Last year, Ipsos reported that as many people had seen Super Bowl ads on YouTube as on live TV (per NetImperative) – and more than half are viewed on mobile devices. Perhaps more important, these ads drive valuable engagement in the form of social media conversations. According to Engagement Labs, Bud Light, for example, drove more than a 1000 per cent increase in conversations following its 2019 Super Bowl ad series. Earned media isn’t dead, but it needs a big paid media spark to set it off. And the Super Bowl provides a singular ignition opportunity.

In keeping with this irony, three of TV’s most threatening digital competitors, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, all stepped up to get in this year’s game. We can infer that, with all their data and processing capacity, they evaluated the opportunity thoroughly before committing.

So how are advertisers dealing with the risks of making such high-profile statements in such a hostile environment? Let’s look at some telling examples.

The grandmaster of data, Google has dropped a deeply emotional spot about the heart-wrenching frailty of age and memory, driving home the message that this technology company has a heart. You’d need a heart of stone to watch this ad without getting choked up. You just can’t do that with a paid search or banner ad.

Key takeaway: strong emotion transcends cultural barriers, and only video can deliver it. (By the way, you can watch the pre-released ads and teasers on YouTube’s AdBlitz.)

Facebook, a newcomer to the Super Bowl ad scene whose brand has been under siege by politicians and activists, focuses its ‘More Together’ campaign on Facebook Groups, an ironic subject to pitch on the most generically inclusive celebration media has to offer. The campaign features iconic celebrities like Sylvester Stallone (who leaked the ad) and Chris Rock, putting group enthusiasm in its most positive light. It offers a convincing rebuttal to the dark side of group tribalism.

Key takeaway: when pitching to a diverse, fragmented audience, sell the benefits of diversity and fragmentation.

Beer brands
For the final example we turn from tech to the stalwart category of Super Bowl branding, beer. AB InBev, owner of the Michelob and Budweiser brands, demonstrates a bold approach to polarization by carefully aligning its brands with opposing cohorts vying to define ‘America’.

Michelob Ultra goes organic. “America,” intones a low female voice, “less than one per cent of our farm land is organic.” The spot opens on a bearded millennial farmer in a field at sunset. It goes on to pitch a cause-related promotion: “Pick up a six-pack, we’ll help transition six square feet of farm land to organic.” It invokes horseback riders, urban street dancers, surfers, and youthful, African-American football fans in a transformational montage of hypothetical donors: “We could change America’s organic farm land forever.” (Just by buying a six-pack of Michelob.) Go SF!

Contrast this with Budweiser’s approach. ‘Typical Americans’ opens with a gritty male voice: “They call us…’typical Americans’…” Note the ‘us versus them’ theme right up front. The ad goes on to invoke American pride and exceptionalism by sarcastically juxtaposing condescending elitist clichés of disapproval about Americans against authentic-looking images of real American heroism and communal harmony. “So the next time someone labels you ‘typical’ (cut to label image: ‘the great American’) show them what ‘typical’ can do.” Go KC!

Key takeaway: if you’re a house of brands, you can cover culture divides with a careful mapping of brands to core sensibilities.

So, what does this mean to brands who may not be ready for the Super Bowl? A number of things:

Recognize that branding still matters. If you’re completely focused on advertising ROI from direct sales, you’re missing the big picture. Don’t forget how the giant digital ad platforms you buy are spending their own marketing budgets.

It’s almost impossible to craft a brand message with significant impact that won’t draw censure from some quarters in the current cultural environment, so pick your values carefully and test your message with a friendly audience. Whether it’s humorously ironic or deadly serious, emotional impact is what people remember.

Finally, remember that successful advertising starts a dialog. Be prepared to follow through with authentic support. Tear down the walls between media and social engagement. Invite consumers to an open dialogue about advertising and values.