Strictly Business: Advertisers gear up for big game

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 
photoGordon Oliver

Big-time businesses are paying an average of $4 million to spend 30 seconds in your home during today's Super Bowl. The advertisers know who they'll find in front of the screens: a huge, attentive crowd of consumers.

In this era of ads that tap social media to slice and dice potential customers into every imaginable demographic niche, the spending on mass-audience Super Bowl ads shows us the power of football to momentarily unify our fractured culture. Sure, not everyone loves the game of football. Still, enough pay attention to make the sport's biggest day one of our society's last common bonds among people of all ages, genders, races, and incomes.

For advertisers, then, the Super Bowl is the big stage for selling products with broad appeal — cars, beer, and packaged foods. But we all know the advertising moment has become much more than that. Ever since then-upstart Apple introduced its Macintosh computer with a single stunning ad that consumed much of its advertising budget, Super Bowl ad placements have become "a celebration of advertising," in the words Shane Wolfsmith, director of account services at AHA!, a Vancouver strategic communications firm. Consumer product marketers push the limits of creativity and, in some cases, taste. And most years, a technology company follows in Apple's giant footsteps to pitch the latest wonder product or shape their public image.

Wolfsmith, who spent 15 years in the advertising industry, sees the creative burst of Super Bowl commercials as a welcome contrast to what he sees as an overall decline in advertising imagination. The advertisements have become a separate, almost equal, cultural moment.

But what about the social media that's been pulling advertisers away from broadcasters, newspapers, and other mass media outlets? When it comes to the Super Bowl, marketers have learned to have it both ways. Instead of building advance hype for an unveiling of ad messages at the big game, some advertisers have already released their ads on YouTube. Last week, news reports were counting the number of views even before their official debut. By midweek, Unilever's ad for its new Peace fragrance had 3.5 million views.

Wolfsmith went looking online for the upcoming ads and found a ranking of the top 10 on the Forbes.com website. When he clicked on, he was greeted by a commercial — the first time he'd had to watch a commercial to see commercials.

It comes back to the aura that surrounds football. Last week, a friend from Tanzania, an immigrant who is deep into English as a Second Language classes, asked me some questions as a class assignment. One question: "Why is football so popular in America?" I gave it some thought. It's exciting. It's played both in college and professionally, increasing its visibility. Games are just once a week, and the season is shorter than most sports. Its sheer brutality is a drawing card, even with growing concern that players suffer long-term head injuries.

Today, we'll watch the game.

Tomorrow, we'll be talking about the Seahawks. And all those crazy, creative ads. It's the American way.