The Super Bowl is to marketing as cartoons are to journalism.
We don’t expect the cartoons to do the same work as the "World News" section, and we are happy to view each as essential but different — even though recently we’ve seen how cartoons can confront and create life-and-death matters.
But for one big, loud, egregious day of the year, we don’t expect the ads to reflect the core mission of the marketers any more than the cartoons reflect the core mission of journalists.
Indeed, two decades of Super Bowl ads have created clear expectations in the audience and a new set of behaviors among marketers. By tradition, Super Bowl Sunday is a three-hour Saturnalia for CMOs. For 364 days of the year, they want to sell us something, but for one Sunday they ask only to entertain or amaze us. (You can be sure that this gray and snowy morning in New York, these marketers are returning to the office grimly rededicated to stealing market share and drinking a lot more coffee than they did yesterday.)
And while Super Bowl ads aren’t really marketing, they are good clean lowbrow fun, and we want it that way.
Now sometimes an advertiser will flout our expectations to powerful effect. The best recent example is from 2013: the "Farmer" spot from Ram Trucks. ("And God made a farmer … ") The counterprogramming worked, because the spot was beautiful and the tone was restrained: not overheated, not overwrought.
Yesterday, however, one-half of the advertisers gave us what we expected — entertainment, celebrities, animals genetically bred for focus-group appeal — while the other half tried to "civilize" us. The marketers told every Huck Finn of us and every Becky Thatcher of us to sit straight in our starchy clothes and to sit still for a lecture. Their combined efforts barely repressed a shallow missionary zeal and barely masked a deep condescension for the audience: "We have 100 million fat Americans sitting on their fat asses and staring at thin celebrities. Let’s enlighten the slobs — that’ll take, what, 30 seconds?"
Because the Super Bowl isn’t really about marketing, I am happy to be a slob for three hours and more. I am happy to watch not as a practitioner or a critic, but as a fan — and as a fan, I do not appreciate the preaching. Improve me tomorrow, I’m trying to watch football here.
But a funny thing happened yesterday. One marketer avoided the traps of the convention and the pretense of the counter-convention. The best spot on the Super Bowl yesterday neither dumbed things down or talked down to us. The spot wasn’t cooked up just for one day, but will remain on the menu all year long: it’s the "Brady Bunch" commercial for Snickers.
The Snickers spot has everything you expect in a Super Bowl commercial, and a few things you didn’t: the brand didn’t take a one-day vacation from itself, it didn’t rent new tricks for the day, and it didn’t concuss me with a lecture. It managed to perform skillful marketing on a day that isn’t really about marketing.
Steve Simpson is chief creative officer of Ogilvy North America.