Super Bowl Rant

Late January always brings, along with the cold weather, news stories about Super Bowl advertising. We hear how Super Bowl advertising is a "no-brainer" because of the audience size, and how advertisers will benefit from "all the buzz."

I disagree with just about all of this news. In this post I will answer the seven most common reasons people think Super Bowl advertising is a great marketing opportunity:

* It's the only time you can reach so many people at one time.
* A Super Bowl advertiser gets extra value because people are interested in being entertained by the commercials.
* But it worked for (insert company name here).
* They must know what they are doing if they are spending so much money.
* You have to be there if your competitors are.
* It's ok if you're a big enough brand and can afford it.
* It burnishes a company's image, and can even increase a stock price.

If you've purchase a 30-second spot for this year's game, prepare to be upset with me.

It's the only time you can reach so many people at one time.

My first question: Why is it better to reach more people at one time? As the size of an advertising audience increases, you are also reaching many people who are not interested in your product. One of the big Super Bowl advertising stories this year is that 45% of the 90 million-person audience is expected to be female. Because of this, brands like Tide (P&G) and Sunsilk (Unilever) are buying Super Bowl ads focused on female buyers. Ok ... but that means they will also be reaching about 50 million disinterested males, at about 3 cents each. That's a lot of pennies.

We live in an age of smart consumers who are not easily sold. A rule for this marketplace: The more people you try to talk to at one time, the less effectively you communicate with each individual person. If you spread your marketing communications a mile wide and an inch deep, you run the risk of creating only superficial connections with customers.

A Super Bowl advertiser gets extra value because people are interested in being entertained by the commercials.

What is this all about, the Academy Awards or investments in improving business performance? People rate the ads on their entertainment value, when the only real value, the one that should be sought, is how well they drive business results. And let's be clear about something: Just because you entertain me, doesn't mean I will buy your product. Listen to people talk Monday morning after the big game—someone will be talking about an ad he likes, laughing uncontrollably as he drinks his coffee, spilling it all over his tie. Then he will stop, and say, "I can't remember what the ad was for, but it was funny."

Entertainment and cleverness do not necessarily translate to purchase behavior, even if they create a smile.

But it worked for (insert company name here).

Yes, some Super Bowl ads work. Putting all your chips on Red 14 at the roulette table in Vegas works once in a while, too. But Super Bowl ads and long-shot gambling bets don't work most of the time. And there is no formula; Super Bowl ad success cannot be predicted, and it can't be duplicated. It is a Black Swan.

They must know what they are doing if they are spending so much money.

Don't suspect that there is a lot of science going on here. There may be some Excel spreadsheet-based pseudo-science, but you should not imagine that companies are analyzing these investments the way they analyze other multi-million dollar investments.

In reality, many Super Bowl ad placements are "vanity buys," to quote a long-time ad agency media department veteran whom I know. In place of thoughtful analysis there is a lot of groupthink and forced rationale taking place.

You have to be there if your competitors are.

One of the first rules of advertising is that you should never make a specific advertising decision because your competitors are doing it. I've given many CEOs this advice: If one of your people tries to rationalize an advertising effort by saying, "We need to be there because our competitors are there," you should not approve the advertising effort. It is almost surely a bad idea, and you should ask for a better reason.

It's ok if you're a big enough brand and can afford it.

Like any risky investment, it should only be made if it can be lost. If you have a big enough marketing budget, and the Super Bowl can be a small piece of your overall effort, complementing hundreds of other touchpoints with customers that blend to create brand harmony, and if you will not be hurt if you lose your total investment, than you may be able to get away with it.

But recognize that it is a risk—a huge risk you are taking with your company's capital, a risk that has a high chance of producing a negative return.

It burnishes a company's image, and can even increase a stock price.

I encourage any marketing executive who wants to make that argument to go to his company's board of directors and stockholders and make it. Shareholders are the least likely to win from Super Bowl advertising. In fact if we think about who wins with Super Bowl advertising, we see that the ad agencies win, the networks win, and the NFL wins. We viewers also win, because we get all this free entertainment in the form of 30 second movies; we will laugh, even if we don't buy. It's the shareholders of the companies paying for the ads who tend to lose, because their management has made a very risky investment, with a high chance of failure. But these investments have been done under the guise of a great opportunity.