Claire Beale On Advertising

The Super Bowl lesson: you needn't run far to make a touchdown

The American bladder has survived another Super Bowl. By the time you read this (and barring some sort of global television meltdown) an estimated 100 million people will have watched yesterday's American football extravaganza - and sat enraptured through some of the most expensive, creative ad breaks on the planet: no popping out to the john in these commercial interludes.

Now I'm not going to pretend I know my Colts from my Bears, but I do know that the Super Bowl makes marketing juices flow. American advertisers go crazy for it. $2.5m-crazy this year.

That's the cost of a 30-second slot on the CBS network, which broadcast the game. And that's before you consider that the cost of a glossy ad by a top agency, shot by a hot director and with no scrimping on the SFX budget, can top $1m, easy. As marketing investments go, that's a lot of bucks per eyeball and every year the price is rising, rising.

Why are big brands such as Coca-Cola, Doritos, Snickers and Budweiser shelling out such bloated premiums for a chance to get some Super Bowl mojo? Simple. Now we're all spreading our media consumption ever more thinly over a greater number of media channels, anything that offers a shared communal experience that a whole nation talks about the next day is in short supply and high demand. Here's the deal: big television events draw big audiences and so command big ad price tags. Simple... but expensive.

The twist with the Super Bowl is that the ads are as much a part of the event experience as the offense, defense and special teams; viewers gorge on them equally. Check out the audience levels of the ad breaks compared to the game itself: there's hardly any dip when the commercials come on, a testament to the American bladder as much as the calibre of the ads.

So let's see: you're a big-cheese marketing director who's managed to persuade your board to put its corporate reputation on the line with a budget-busting investment in this Bowl they call Super. So what are you going to do with your precious 30 seconds? The answer - for probably about half of the advertisers in the game - is flush that $2.5m straight down the pan with a bland, forgettable ad (you've seen a few of those).

But the reason the Super Bowl matters is because the rest of the advertisers use their slots to do something creatively brave, interesting and econven, this year in particular, agenda-setting. You guessed it: Super Bowl advertising has gone user-generated. Here, in a handful of multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads, is proof writ large: consumer-generated advertising has arrived.

Doritos, the National Football League and General Motors all picked punters to make their ads (though at least one - the NFL - paid a top-notch director to polish it). Doritos ran a make-your-own-Super Bowl ad competition; one of the short-listed entries cost $12.79 to make. GM pitched teams of students against each other to make the best ad for its slot; the students were filmed through the process for an online reality television show. The NFL held Pop Idol-style auditions to find the ideal "user" to "generate" its ad.

Maybe it takes a showcase event such as the Super Bowl really to prove that user-generated advertising has strategic value and is not simply an adland fad. Or maybe it will turn out to prove just the opposite. I suspect that this time next year we'll all be talking about a firm return to real ads made by real agencies, with big ideas amplified across media, though probably made for a little less money than they used to cost.

Certainly what quickly becomes pretty obvious when you see these user-generated films is that they're more likely to make it into a PR textbook than on to one of adland's awards podiums. And therein lies the real value of the Super Bowl user-generated ad. Because Super Bowl advertising is certainly not just about what happens in 30-second chunks on CBS. It's about all the noise surrounding the event: the chat about the ads round the water cooler, the dissection on them on blogs, the post-game ratings of the ads in USA Today, PR, PR, PR. And on all of these measures, the user-generated ads are continuing to cause one hell of a buzz.

So here's the thing: remember those advertisers who have just flushed $2.5m-plus down the toilet with some Super Bowl soup? If only they'd spent an extra $12.79, they could have really been on to something.

HAVE YOU seen the new Apple Mac ads? If you ever doubted that Apple Mac was one of those badge-value brands that people have a deep emotional relationship with, type Mitchell and Webb into Google. Actually, perhaps you'd better take my word for it. As I discovered when researching this article, there's a startlingly vibrant Mac subculture pulsing out there that only those who truly love their Macs will understand; I, on the other hand, was a little disturbed.

Anyway, the comedy duo (David Mitchell and Robert Webb of Channel 4's Peep Show) star in a new series of ads, Mitchell playing PC and Webb playing Mac. This being a campaign for Apple, Mac is naturally smart and clever; PC is lumbering and really rather dull.

The ads are damn good, particularly as ads for techie kits go, though they are mostly simply English versions of tried and tested US ad scripts. But the fascinating thing is the level of heated debate they have generated online (obviously the Mac users' métier). So passionately do these critics feel about their Mac brand, that for it to be appropriated by advertising is almost an affront in itself and they're not rolling over. There are hundreds of pages of debate about whether the ads are any good, whether they're better than the US versions, whether Mitchell and Webb were the right castings (have they sold out?), whether they're funny or not funny. Make your own mind up at apple.com/uk/getamac/ads.

Time was when ad agencies and marketers only had to put up with a few gobby people like me dissecting their work in print. Now the whole world's at it, almost literally. That's an interesting new take on advertising research for big brands. Forget sitting a small group of fingers-crossed-representative consumers in a cheap room with some nuts and lager and a DVD of your latest commercial. Put your ad up on your website and then sit back and wait for the chat to begin.

The challenge then, of course, is for advertisers and agencies to listen to the chatroom/blogosphere banter and use it to inform their next campaigns. Because this online comment is not just nifty, cost-effective feedback; the internet is a two-way medium and advertisers simply cannot afford to ignore their consumers-turned-ad critics. If they do, they can expect hundreds of new threads asking why.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign.

claire.beale@haynet.com

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