Tulipmania & Football

With one week to go, Superbowl advertising is nearly sold out at $2.5 million for 30 seconds.

I'm in the middle of a great book, Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire, which gives us an interesting take on what might cause this kind of absurd spending. We've always looked at the domestication of plants and animals as a symbol of humanity's power over other species. Pollan turns this idea on its head, showing how four species of plants have exploited different human desires to help them thrive. The four plants and the related desires are the apple (sweetness), tulip (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and potato (control). We have to ask, who is the domesticator, and who is the domesticated? Makes me think of Superbowl advertising. (Read on ...)

The Tulip chapter describes the Tulipmania craze in Holland during 1635-1637, where prices for tulip bulbs and futures contracts on these bulbs rose to unbelievable levels. In Pollan's world, this isn't only a story of human greed and the non-wisdom of crowds, but it's also a story of how the tulip was able to take advantage of a human need. The Dutch, constrained by Calvinist morals and living in a drab, monochromatic environment, were vulnerable to the tulip's brilliant beauty. This gave tulip genes an opportunity to replicate themselves in great numbers. Tulipmania was not only good for the speculators who were able to sell and collect, but was also really good for the tulip.

My contention: Although a few advertisers may benefit from Superbowl advertising, the only sure winner is the broadcaster. Let's not kid ourselves about the real value in Superbowl advertising. The broadcasters have cashed in on marketers' need for notoriety (notice I didn't write the word "sales").

The bursting of the Tulipmania bubble started small and exploded quickly. When one seller couldn't get his price, the word spread and the market went into a rapid collapse. Ultimately, this was very good for the economy in Amsterdam. One day, in the not too distant future, it's possible that the broadcaster of the Superbowl won't be able to get its price and that market could collapse also. That might be the best thing for Superbowl advertisers.