The Super Bowl offers universal truths for year-round advertising

Fresh from making a Super Bowl ad for Amazon, Lucky Generals' co-founder shares what the agency learned and how to apply those principles to advertising all year long.

Lucky Generals ran our first ever Super Bowl commercial at the weekend: a star-studded spot for Amazon.  This was a rare achievement for any British agency – and even more freakishly, we actually won USA Today’s coveted public vote (the first time a non-American shop has ever done this).  Many of us stayed up to watch the game (either here or with our clients in Seattle) so are currently feeling a bit like the Eagles players: proud, euphoric but completely knackered. 

Anyway, enough of the humble-bragging.  Now that the game is over, the nocturnal chicken wings (sounds like a great indie band) have gone and the ticker-tape’s been swept up, what can we learn? 

Well, most observers would say: not a lot.  For starters, the assembly of such an enormous live audience, watching together, is highly unusual.  In addition, these viewers’ active interest in the advertising is distinctly off-trend.  And of course, the crazy production budgets and media costs are not repeatable year-round. But while it’s tempting to dismiss the event as a one-off orgy of American excess, I’d argue it is actually a timely reminder of some broader truths for all of us. 

Most clearly, the Super Bowl reminds us all of the need to entertain.  This broad assertion sounds like stating the bleeding obvious.  It has certainly been proven beyond all doubt by successive empirical studies.  And for one week every February, the planet’s biggest brands accept it without question.  Which makes it all the stranger that many of these same companies spend the rest of the year boring, pestering and shouting at consumers for a living.  Surely it’s even more important to move, thrill, amuse or surprise people when they’re going about their everyday lives than when they’re a captive audience?  It’s incredible how often this is forgotten. 

Less obviously, the Super Bowl also reminds us of the need to persuade. Dave Trott wrote a great piece about this the other day, bemoaning the death of rhetoric in modern advertising. Superficially, a lot of Super Bowl ads fall into this trap.  The worst offenders ladder up to a ludicrously overblown purpose or just bolt the brand and product onto a funny skit.  But take a closer look and you’ll see that many of the recent greats – from VW’s "The force" to Old Spice Man – actually have a hard persuasive centre.  This reflects America’s rich tradition of creative salesmanship – often shaped by hard-nosed marketers in the Midwest and honed by brilliant agencies on the coast – but we Brits should not treat it as an alien art form. 

Finally, the Super Bowl reminds us of the power of great communications thinking.  "What?" I hear you cry: isn’t buying a marquee TV spot the laziest media strategy ever and completely out of kilter with today’s more integrated thinking?  Well, it’s true that some brands will be in the break for all the wrong reasons (for instance corporate vanity, unthinking me-tooism or historical precedent).  And it’s also fair to say that some companies fail to exploit their presence through the line.  But while the Super Bowl is obviously TV-led and demonstrates the enduring power of that medium, what it really highlights is the even greater potency of television as part of a broader plan.  For many years now, the most successful Super Bowl spots have used a mixture of PR, social, stunts, tech and real-life activation to jostle their way to the winner’s podium.  Most are launched well in advance of the game and with a military level of coordination.  Arguably, the exorbitant cost of the airtime actually concentrates smart minds on how to squeeze every dollar’s worth of value out of every pixel in every channel, every minute of every day.  How often can that be said of our everyday efforts?

In short, the Super Bowl is clearly an anomaly.  But maybe the winning formula shouldn’t be packed away until next February.  Maybe we should approach every new campaign as if it had to out-entertain the biggest names in popular culture; as if a badass in Detroit were demanding we put their brand front and centre; and as if the media were so stupidly expensive that we needed to make every single penny count, across the mix.  Maybe if we raised our own ambitions and energy, consumers might be more inclined to lean forward too? 

Who knows whether we’ll ever get another crack at the Super Bowl – let alone win the bloody thing again – but it’s certainly been a timely reminder to treat every brief like a Cup Final rather than a run-of-the mill league fixture. 

Just give us a day or so to recover.  Please. 

Andy Nairn is a co-founder of Lucky Generals. 

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