The Super Bowl: The pitch and the public

Legendary commercial director reflects on how the popularity of pitting Super Bowl spots against each other changed the game

Looking back, the Super Bowl wasn’t such a big deal, then. The Oscars was a better show. USA Today’s Ad Meter changed the game in 1989. It was a big focus group; something that we directors hated — I mean traditional focus groups. What does the public know anyway? I did a Nike spot called "Announcers" that won the poll the next year and people said that it was because the Ad Meter group was in Portland, Nike’s home. Oh well.

The Ad Meter was the first time that commercials really got formal public recognition, besides word of mouth. After that, Super Bowl commercials became formulaic. They had to be funny, maybe have a celebrity, and run in the first half of the game. Ironically, one of the best spots ever, anywhere, Apple’s "1984" ran before the poll so it didn’t get a formal ranking. I did a Pepsi spot with dancing bears and, during the shoot, I remarked that it was the worst thing I had ever done. It won the poll. You can never tell.

I’ve had a great deal of fun, working with Britney, Cindy, Ray Charles, Chevy Chase, Michael J. Fox and a bunch of others, but the greatest successes have been with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. I did a spot with MJ and Bugs Bunny, "Hare Jordan" and another, for McDonald’s with MJ and Bird (sounds like a restaurant) Both won the poll and someone at Warner Brothers felt that since over 100,000,000 people saw Bugs in a new light and liked him they should do a movie. They did and made BILLIONS. That’s right, BILLIONS and still counting.  

Think about it. A hit movie ($100,000,000 gross) sells a ticket to perhaps 4% of the population. The Super Bowl speaks to a third of the country.

I get into this argument all the time about the Internet. The BMW Films of a while ago were held up as an Internet success story. The series cost a huge amount of money, upwards of $25,000,000 and had 11,000,000 hits the first year. That means that BMW spent over two bucks a pop to reach people. That doesn’t seem like a bargain, and the people watched these productions on a small screen, sometimes a telephone. It might have been better to produce a terrific $5,000,000 commercial and run it on the Super Bowl, reach ten times as many people, and pocket fifteen mil. Anybody watching a BMW film is probably predisposed to buy one anyway, but the Internet people skew these statistics to suit their purposes. Most Internet stats are fraudulent anyway.

Back to the important stuff: Ray Charles attacked me once, saying "I’ve been making music for over fifty years and the first time any one came up to me in an airport was after the commercials ran." His language was saltier.

Cindy Crawford!!! The spot "Two Kids" actually wasn’t done for the Super Bowl but had gotten great response so Pepsi decided to run it on the Bowl. I did another spot with her a few years later and Tyra Banks was in it as well. Everyone came up to me the next day and asked if I did the "Cindy" spot. The others were invisible.

The Clydesdales. Fabulous! The animals are beyond belief! I did a bunch of the spots. When AB was taken over by the Belgians, they decided to phase out these magnificent creatures. I guess the Belgians were upset about how much oats cost. Belgium is a flyover country between Paris and London. No one ever goes there. I think it’s famous for money laundering. Anyway, the Clydesdales had smaller roles for a few years, but now they’re making a comeback. I have no idea how they saw the light but…

The first year of foreign control, a teamster that I’ve worked with for years asked me why the Clydesdales weren’t on the Super Bowl. I asked him why he cared. He said that the only thing that his family ever knew about his work were the Clydesdale commercials on the Super Bowl and that made them proud of him. They gave his work meaning. I guess that means something.


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