The Super Bowl: Adland's anti-metaphor

Forget cynicism, BBH New York's creative chairman writes -- let's seek out those brief moments that change the world by giving it what it didn't know it wanted

So. The Super Bowl. What does it all mean, what are we supposed to learn, and how is it a metaphor for all that is right or wrong with the industry? These are the questions one faces when asked to write about the Big Game.

And when asked to write about it, I have to admit I found myself a bit reluctant. In the inevitable swirl that happens on the Day After, sitting in judgment, especially when we didn’t have any work in there felt … cynical. And cynicism is just about the last thing our industry needs. Because cynicism is the enemy of creativity. It’s fear retreating to the dark corners of what’s known, trying to drag anything original or interesting down with it. It is not brave. Or daring. Or potentially world-changing. It is lazy and fearful.

And it’s lame as shit.

And on top of that, in spite of what I suspect motivates many day-after critics, I don’t believe creativity is a zero-sum game. There’s plenty to go around, plenty of it still out there for the taking. So, if you believe in the power of creativity and care about this industry, you refuse to be a cynic. Instead, you root for every single commercial in the Super Bowl. You root for the agencies, the people, the clients. You wish and hope for them to succeed. Because you know when greatness happens on this platform, it helps show the world just how powerful our collective creativity can be.

But here’s the thing: while the Super Bowl is generally seen as the pinnacle of creative advertising to the rest of the world, it isn’t seen that way in the eyes of the industry. There’s a pretty big gulf between the two that can be hard to bridge. And the few pieces that do highlight a fundamental difference between creativity that gives people what they want and creativity that gives people something they didn’t know they wanted.

And it’s only the latter that can elevate what we do and push the industry forward.

Giving the world what it didn’t know it wanted has always been where all the creative magic existed. In literature. Film. Architecture. Video games. If you play things too safe, or let the cynics knock off all the sharp edges, because they believe the masses only want what they know, you create things doomed to be forgotten. At its worst, the Super Bowl can epitomize this. Ideas, business, and creativity are never moved forward by the opinions of the masses, because the masses demand consensus. And consensus has always been quicksand to progress.

And, to be clear: I like puppies. I like celebrities, the military, old people, explosions, inspiring music with a build, America, everyday folks overcoming personal challenges, not-so-everyday folks overcoming personal challenges, things that are mindlessly silly for no real point, things that are horribly sad to make a point, self-deprecating jokes by C-level celebrities, and well-placed meta-gags that make it OK to use a tired advertising formula as long as you winkingly acknowledge you are using a tired advertising formula. But frankly, I only really remember them in advertising or stories or songs or anything when you use them in a way nobody ever saw coming. Or in a way so personal that it feels like new. When you deliver them in a way I never knew I would want. Because that’s what jars the world loose from its expectation. And gives it something new and special and memorable that it never had before.

That’s the work that moves an audience, a brand, a business, and our entire industry forward. And while the Super Bowl often leans toward work that gives the world what it wants, it’s the few pieces that give us what we didn’t know we wanted that burn through the sky and into our hearts and brains and anywhere else in our bodies we log memory and emotion and joy. Which is why the Super Bowl isn’t a metaphor for anything. It is the perfect embodiment of the industry itself.

John Patroulis is creative chairman at BBH New York.

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