Super Bowl TV Spots (Versus All The Rest Of The Year).

Well, it’s that time of year again: agencies and clients are buying time on the Super Bowl XLV. Two thoughts on this.

First off, um, Super-Bowl Owner Guys? Can we lose the Roman numerals? This has to be at least the XLV-th time I’ve told you guys how confusing those numerals are.

And the other thing is this.

I think it’s interesting the way agencies and clients go on record talkin’ about how hard they’re working on their Super Bowl spots. It’s usually a statement somethin’ like “With an audience this large, we’ve got to put on the best show we can.”

I’m glad everyone tries so hard on Super Sunday. (Though some try maybe too hard?) Overall, I enjoy the Super Bowl spots because everybody seems to be puttin’ on their Sunday best. My question here is why should a spot on the Super Bowl be any different than what we’d air on a Sienfeld re-run? Why do Super Bowl commercials seem so much more important than the ones that air during the rest of the year?

Agreed, only a fraction as many viewers are watchin’ Jerry and Elaine, but isn’t their money just as good as the money from folks watching the big game? For the sake of argument let’s say it’s just 100,000 people watchin’ Sienfeld. Let’s make it ten thousand. Why would we decide to do anything less for these Sienfeld viewers because there are fewer of them?

It’s sorta like this.

I’m giving a speech next month in San Francisco. It’s not gonna be a very big crowd at all — maybe 200 — so you know what? Instead of trying to make my speech interesting and memorable, I’m gonna throw out everything I know about oratory, about passion, and about connecting with an audience. I’m gonna save all that “interesting crap” for a bigger audience. For the 200 schmucks who show up at my measly little speech? I’m just gonna jam it all into a Powerpoint.

Dude, there’s just gonna be 200 people, okay? Why do any of the “interesting” crap I had planned? Why open with something that grabs their attention when I can get right to the point? Why establish any connection with them?

My speech was gonna be about how important it is to have one simple clean message. But now that I see it’s for a smaller audience, I can cram in everything I want — stuff about making the message relevant, stuff about the importance of production values, pretty much anything I want will fit in now.

In fact, from now on all my speeches for crowds under 2,000 aren’t gonna be memorable or interesting. They’ll be what I’ll call “hard working” speeches; “second-tier speeches.” To anyone who says they suck, I’ll say “My regional speeches have different objectives.”  People may not go away thinking I’m much of a speaker. They may not want to hear from me again, but goddammit, they’ll have heard all the facts I can cram in the allotted time.

On the other hand, say I get a gig speaking at the big Retail Advertising and Marketing Association? With two or three thousand? Damn, I’ll put on a really good show for those guys. No, seriously I will, because there’ll be more of them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Maybe I’ve made my point here, maybe not. Just seems to me that a TV spot is a TV spot. TV, radio, any media buy is a public appearance for which we ought to put on our Sunday best, no matter how large our congregation is.


  1. Amen, brother, amen.

    Alas, all spots are not created equal. Super Bowl spots are special because it’s the one venue people want to see the spots. Commercials are analyzed, scrutinized, dissected and discussed– making it all the more tragic when advertisers shit the bed. But, to your point, clients and agencies alike should treat every spot as if it was airing in the Super Bowl.

  2. You make a damn good point about why the Super Bowl should be treated better than any other media. But I think there’s equal merit to the flip side of that coin.

    If every-day “hard working” ads are right for Seinfeld re-runs, why aren’t they right for the Super Bowl? If we’re so convinced that “getting straight to the point” is more effective on a day-to-day basis, than shouldn’t the size of the Super Bowl audience make it even more effective?

    I guess what I’m saying is that perhaps rather than discussing why all our work isn’t done to same level as the Super Bowl, we should simply ask what makes for the best ad – regardless of where or when it runs.

    • Sorry, typo. I meant to say: “You make a damn good point about why the Super Bowl should NOT be treated better than any other media.”

      • I love your idea. To put “regular hard-working” TV in front of one billion people and see if you like it as much.

  3. Great point about putting on your best all the time. I think human nature is to blame. I mean to say, how many times to you dash off to the supermarket to pick up a few quick items, and you go wearing your gym shorts and a t-shirt, flip flops and a baseball hat, because you know you aren’t going to see anyone you know or want to impress? But if you knew you would see everyone you work with, or that you would bump into some important future client, you’d shave, shower, put on something respectable and give it your best effort. Advertisers should always want to give it their best effort.

  4. I second that Amen.

    And I think the Superbowl is a bit of a pissing contest for corporate marketers. Look how far my dollars can go, you measly, less-than peer of mine!

    Does it really sell product? I want to say No. I want to say the messages get buried by all the hype and beer bonging.

    Then again, the best Superbowl ad of all time is Apple’s “1984”. And I think we can safely say it worked pretty well for them.

  5. Seems the approach taken by most agencies (and advertisers) for Super Bowl commercials is sort of the same approach taken by creators of successful viral videos. The “normal” rules of ad creative don’t apply. Running the same old tired focused-grouped-to-death spots you’d run on “Desperate Housewives” or “Dancing With The Stars” just won’t do. No, you need something outrageous. Something that is “more” than what was considered acceptable on network TV. Something that translates well to the office water cooler patter. I explored the similarities between viral videos and Super Bowl commercials here:

  6. Beautifully said. I couldn’t agree more.

  7. I believe that it’s not about the level of effort one puts in his or her work but rather that on a Super Bowl ad you can, or are even expected to, break some barriers. Here in Portugal we have no real equivalent of the Super Bowl which is a shame because it’s that time of the year when even clients expect their ads to be something else than “normal” everyday tv Spots. They expect them to be funnier, wackier or just plain nonsensical.
    As a creative i try to deliver something i can be proud of in every ad that i am invited to do, but most of the times we have to go back to what’s done and redone and just do it once again because no one wants to be different (most of the times this “no one” is the client but sometimes even the agency doesn’t want to deliver something out of the ordinary in fear that it could be viewed badly – i don’t know why but it has happened.)
    To me, the Super Bowl is like creative Christmas. And that’s a good thing. Too bad that just like Christmas it’s only once a year and that there are people that don’t have it.

  8. Your verbal irony is quite stellar.
    And you are absolutely right. The only special factor in SB is that people are watching, maybe.
    Do you believe the SB hype is hurting the industry? Because I personally feel is has lost its edge. But I am no usual.


    PS: Where in SF are you speaking? I wish I was still over there.

  9. This posted without submitting. Odd.


    I did not get to edit. Strange.

  10. Good point…I like how you mention both ad agencies AND clients. Afterall, agencies are at the mercy of their clients.

    Pretty much agree with Martin too…
    Ultimately, it does come down to effort vs. expected reward. We are creatures that have an insatiable need for immediate gratification. The SB offers an immediate ego stroke and immediate exposure to a receptive audience looking to be entertained.

    The “Sunday Best Principle” = uncompromising quality at all times.
    Hmmm…now how do we convince clients to invest in the principle and potentially delay gratification?


  11. You’re kidding, right?

    You couldn’t honestly be suggesting that speaking in front of 200 people is the same as speaking in front of 2000. Just like I’m pretty sure you couldn’t be suggesting that the ad that works really well with the Sienfeld rerun viewer, if executed to the highest quality, as it should be, will also work well with the Super Bowl viewer.

    101-marketing commonsense tells us that, even if the viewing consumer is the same, their mindset is different.

    Additionally, the ad industry has made the Super Bowl ad time into the epitome of advertainment. That’s why the most successful ads (regarding ROI, IMHO) are those that use the platform to launch a product, service or event, as opposed to those that attempt to use the time for branding. Unless that is, your brand is Bud, CocaCola, Go Daddy and perhaps a couple others that “own” the minds of the Super Bowl viewers (yet even these are beginning to lose the Super Bowl ad mystique).

    Any other company that presents itself knowingly or unknowingly competes against these brands, along with all the other elements associated with the Super Bowl, which is not a concern with Sienfeld rerun ad time (although all have unique influencers).

    The power of the Super Bowl advertainment is on the wane, which is normal for media cycles (although many ad industry experts haven’t seemed to notice — or have deliberately ignored) and needs to be reinvented. On the other hand, shows like Sienfeld reruns aren’t necessarily subject to the same type of cycle.

    It’s not a matter of substance, but scope and execution of that substance. And, the size of the $$$ stakes involved.

    One day I’d like to see an ad agency put up a few million for a 30 second Super Bowl ad and treat it like a quarter page print ad placed in AdAge.

    Or authors of blogs pay the same attention and care as they would to a million dollar book deal.

    And the talk that’s going on now … just part of the marketing mix.

    Shoot, if I can talk some BS about upcoming ads for an event 6 months away and get free press for myself and my client, it just makes sense to do it.

    • Just read your post. Am going to think about it and write later, otay?

  12. Yo, Mojo: You make some valid points about the coolness of the Super Bowl as a big PR platform. Agreed. My screed was not intended to impugn the big game. It was more of a call, or a wish, that the same attention paid to creativity during this period happened all year long; that regular spots on regular shows got the same love and attention. That’s all. Kinda like how some people wish the spirit of Christmas lasted all year long? That kinda thing.

    • HeyWhipple, I’m right there with you. Didn’t read the piece as trying to impugn the big game. Actually, I think it’s a valid observation that begins to touch on a cancer infesting the industry.

      Anyway big man, always enjoy reading your thoughts.

      And hey, a Merry Christmas to you.



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.