Something is amiss on Madison Avenue. The much-hyped "stars" of the third most-watched program in television history — the ads of Super Bowl LXI — were, all in all, a bust.
The players had to contend with torrential rain, yet they managed to make the game suspenseful well into the fourth quarter. Prince braved the elements to give a virtuoso halftime performance, while probably wondering if he was going to be electrocuted. But advertising's best and brightest didn't get it right — despite having months to plan for the biggest night of the year, perhaps the biggest night of their careers.
What's the problem here? Perhaps, with about $86,000 per second on the line, too many cooks want to stir the broth, or the pressure to perform has become too great. Or maybe the problem is that no one is quite sure what a Super Bowl spot should be: an integral part of a consumer marketing plan or an entry in the world's biggest advertising popularity contest.
Writing about last year's game, we put forth the quaint notion that the purpose of advertising is to sell something, and anything else is a waste of marketing — and shareholder — dollars. It's obvious that few people were listening — to us, or to such industry icons as Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy, who defined creativity as a selling message ensconced in a relevant entertaining idea.
As has become an annual custom, just about every industry columnist, and legions of bloggers, have weighed in with their list of favorites. In years past, there was a great deal of overlap. But this year there was a wide range of favorites — or, to call a spade a spade, nothing really stood out.
We're not going to join the bandwagon, in part because we don't have enough favorites to make a list, but mainly because we don't want to help perpetuate the lunacy that the most expensive air time in the world should be spent on commercials whose raison d'etre is to make somebody's list. Call us sticks in the mud, but the purpose of a Super Bowl ad, the mother of all marketing investments, should be the mother of all returns. That's all there is to it.
In approaching the Super Bowl, advertisers would be well advised to consider the following: Greatness is certainly elusive, but this year no one seemed even to be trying. The agency should be required to watch a reel of classics, such as Apple's "1984," Budweiser's "Frogs" (1995), Xerox's "Monks" (1977) and Master Lock's "Marksman" (1974-'93). If the agency won't commit to reach for the stars, clients should save their money.
Everyone needs to be on the same page regarding the objective of the effort: Do you want a spot people will talk about ... or a spot that will make people talk about your product? You can have both, but Super Bowl entertainment-for-its-own-sake conventions suggest you need to be pretty insistent.
Recognize that great humor, especially humor that is relevant to the product, is very hard to achieve. Gratuitous humor may rate high in post-Super Bowl consumer polls, but it’s not likely to do much for your business. Some of the very best Super Bowl commercials weren't made for laughs: the aforementioned Apple and Master Lock spots, Monster.com's "When I Grow Up" (1999) and Budweiser's "Welcome Home" (2005), to name but a few.
Subtlety can also be a trap. The Super Bowl audience has been conditioned to watch commercials, but it's still a big, often well-lubricated party. This year's FedEx "Don't Judge" cleverly associated names with body language, but unless you were glued to the screen, you probably missed the joke.
Controversy can help generate instant name recognition, as it did for GoDaddy.com several games ago. But if you don't need it, why take the risk? It's hard to understand why Masterfoods would do that with its venerable Snickers brand.
Don't forget that there are women in the audience — lots of them. The ones with whom we watched the game were repelled by Bud Light's "mean and macho" strategy and turned on by Revlon's surprise appearance in the third quarter. It didn't hurt that Revlon's "Not Fade Away" was probably the best marketing idea of the night.
Shorter spots cost less — and can work harder. CBS may not have intended to upstage all its clients and their agencies with its 10-second Late Show with David Letterman commercial. But it did.
Finally, advertisers should carefully assess whether their product really belongs here. Categories that are low-interest, require detailed explanation or are not fun to talk about should probably avoid the Super Bowl. Do people really want to think about urination problems during the biggest game of the year? Or annuities? If you don't belong, don't do it.
© 2012 Forbes.com