The average price of a ticket to Super Bowl XLV: $4700. The average price of a 30-second television commercial during the 2011 game: $3 million. But the real million-dollar question is, did ad agencies obtain the “priceless” results they were hoping those commercials would generate? At $100,000 per second, the follow-up question should be, did ad agencies make good use of vendors’ dollars?
Summaries concerning the results of this yearly Ad Bowl have pointed to the dismal economy for the “conservative” approach to the Super Bowl advertising of late—or better said, the general lack of creative content in these million-dollar commercials. Assuredly, audiences can count on an ahhh moment from the annual Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale spot, a hearty laugh from one of the brewer’s comical Bud Light scenes, or a chuckle from a Coke or Pepsi presentation. To fairly judge the caliber of the game’s lineup, though, fans have to look beyond these “all-star” offerings and instead examine the remaining positions. Based on this assessment, the commercials scored fairly high this year, at least in my book.
Don’t get me wrong. Super Bowl XLV brought many flubs—from Christina Aguilera’s botched national anthem, to the Steelers’ mistake-riddled first-half performance, to the lackluster Black Eyed Peas half-time show (much to my surprise). And a number of commercials fell short of their mark, as well. The Best Buy spot with odd couple Justin Bieber and Ozzy Osbourne was unimaginative, as was the GoDaddy.com spot, which continues to rely on sexy women to sell an unrelated product (without any humor or other much-needed hook). And then there was the backlash from the politically incorrect Timothy Hutton Groupon piece.
How did this super event turn into a circus? Money. When the first Super Bowl aired in 1967, a collective 41 million viewers watched the game. The average price of a 30-second spot: $40,000. Hardly chump change, though the big game among advertisers had not yet started. Nevertheless, there were nuggets of creativity in the ads that aired early on. Among them: the 1967 Noxema spot featuring New York Jets’ legendary quarterback Joe Namath, the 1980 Coke ad with Pittsburgh Steeler great Mean Joe Green (still voted one of the all-time favorites, though it debuted months before the game), and the 1984 Apple Big Brother-themed spot.
Over the years, as the audience expanded, ad executives and vendors began stepping up their game, rolling out some memorable (and not so memorable) commercials. It’s debatable whether the quality of the ads rose in conjunction with the price, however. Not in question, though, is how competitive the commercial event has become. Yet, somewhere along the way, ad execs appeared too focused on out-doing one another in terms of absurdity, not creativity. This year, many of them seemed to have dusted off their older playbooks, and with positive results. A number of more interesting commercials required digital assistance (see “A Commercial Success,” pg. 21). But, cutting-edge VFX cannot go it alone. These commercials have to grab our attention and stay with us. Just as amazing imagery cannot carry a CG animated film without a good story, neither can smart digital work carry a catchy commercial that lacks a creative message or story.
This year, studios including The Mill, Framestore, and Animal Logic took to the field, lending their expertise and applying their digital magic to funny and/or imaginative Super Bowl XLV commercials. And the results were quite nice—what I expect a $3 million commercial to look like.