No Stars for You: Confessions of a Super-Bowl Ad Critic

PuppyMonkeyBabyThe Super Bowl is weird this year. It’s not that I couldn’t care any less about the Atlanta Falcons vs the New England Patriots. I watched the Panthers vs the Patriots in 2004, so I guess I’ll watch this.

But this is the first time in 16 years that I haven’t spent the three weeks leading up to the Super Bowl hyperventilating about the Super Bowl commercials. You see, I used to review Super Bowl ads. Some critics review movies and books. I reviewed incredibly expensive commercials.

Until December of last year, I worked at Advertising Age, the trade magazine that serves as the bible of the industry. It’s a pretty godless industry, but one of the High Holy Days is the Super Bowl. Companies across the spectrum, from beer to super glue to floor mats for cars, pay the hosting network insane amounts of money to run ads during the most-watched thing on TV. This year, Fox was raking in $5 million for 30 seconds of air time. That cost doesn’t include production of ads larded with special effects, CGI animals, celebrities and “humor.”

A Super Bowl ad, of course, is a major deal for the ad agencies that create them. It’s a badge of honor to be tapped to create a Super Bowl ad. The upside is that 112 million or so people in America—and increasingly, millions beyond—see your ad. The downside is that 112 million or so people in America see your ad. It can make or break careers.

I was editor of the magazine by the time I left, but of the many things I did there over the years, reviewing Super Bowl ads was one of the most fun—and also one of the most frustrating, silly and, ultimately, pointless things I’ve ever done.

The fun part? That was easy. I got to see the ads before everyone else. Ad Age printed on Fridays and came out on Mondays. So if we wanted to run something in print, we had to see the ads before the game.

That was once a much bigger deal than it is now. With the advent of YouTube—and the increasing prices for game time spots—more and more companies are sharing the ads early. This particular dam burst in 2011 when Volkswagen ran a one-minute version of “The Force”—that was the one with Darth Vader Kid (no relation to Chewbaca mom)—the week before the game. The spot racked up millions of views before kickoff and the majority of Super Bowl marketers followed suit in subsequent years.

That made me feel just a little bit less special. But I was still special enough to get calls from networks to talk about Super Bowl ads. I even did the Katie Couric show once back when she was on real TV, rather than Yahoo (is Yahoo still a thing?).

Some companies have stuck to tradition. That’s where the frustration comes in. Some of these companies were a huge pain in the ass about sharing their ads ahead of time. You’d think they were holding nuclear codes or a cure for cancer. So in the busiest week of your year, you’re spending valuable time on deadline begging and pleading with PR people, promising first-born children and explaining that no, you don’t have time to fly to Detroit to watch the master file. Every year, one or two held out until the very end. Every year, we got almost all of them in on time.

Which made me feel really guilty when an ad sucked and I trashed it.

Not that that ultimately mattered. Because let me tell you this. If you think book and film criticism is futile, no one—and I mean no one—cares what the ad critic thinks. While social-media shares have become increasingly important, the people with money in the game only care about one thing: The USA Today Ad Meter.

That thing—basically a consumer panel—has ended agency/client relationships. And it’s basically Homer Simpson at the Springfield Film Festival. They’re going to go for “Man Getting Hit by Football”—or, worse, fetus clawing its way out of the womb for a Dorito—every time. Those Doritos “Crash the Bowl” spots, by the way, drove ad industry people INSANE. Every year, these ads, created by commoners with little to no ad experience (supposedly), landed in the top ten of the Ad Meter right along the ads created and produced by professionals—some of whom are Oscar and Emmy winners.

When I say people don’t listen to the ad critic, I’m just not just making a point about the masses vs. the elite. They literally don’t listen to the ad critic. My ad review predecessor at Ad Age, media critic and On the Media host Bob Garfield, literally broke with protocol one year to plead with Just for Feet not to run one of the most egregiously stupid Super Bowl ads of all time, one in which two white blokes hunt down an African tribesman, dart him with a tranquilizer as if he were an animal and strap shoes on his feet. This was way back in 1999, before we were all enlightened, when a sexual assaulter sat in the White House (my how things have changed). Even so, it was panned as racist and things got really ugly between the company and its agency after that.

Still, plenty of people likely laughed their asses off at that ad. That’s the other thing about reviewing Super Bowl ads. It’s done in an artificial environment. The critic, after prying these super-secret ads out of agencies and marketers, watches them on a computer screen using headphones.

How do you watch the game? On a TV, likely a big one. At a bar or at home, surrounded by people, some of whom might be buzzed—or, as Football Jesus intended, completely drunk—by the start of the game. In many cases, the people who make the ads KNOW this. Some of them tailor the ads for the drunk in the back of the room. That’s why you’ll see ads that are loud, brazen and apparently written by frat boys. In the heat of the game, with everyone worked up and chatting, those ads can come off as downright hilarious. But like a good dive bar or a drunken fling, they don’t hold up so well in the bright, sober light of day.

Those ads, by the way, used to make up the bulk of the game. In the past few years, however, there have been fewer of them. There are a number of forces at play here. If everyone in the game is doing the same thing, the ad loses its impact. Also, believe it or not, some marketing people and their agencies are artists at heart and see this as their one opportunity a year to push the envelope. So lately we’ve seen a number of silent, serious, longer ads talking about humanity, equality, the power of mom, the strength of dad and American exceptionalism. The thinking being that if everyone else is shouting, go quiet. But because there’s also a lot of me-tooism in Super Bowl ads, if everyone in the game is going quiet, the ad loses its impact. So you have to do something crazy, like PuppyMonkeyBaby.

You try writing something coherent and incisive about PuppyMonkeyBaby. I happened to like PuppyMonkeyBaby, but thankfully by the time it hit the scene, reviewing the Super Bowl ads had fallen to someone else, who’ll be spending the entirety of this week starting bleary eyed into a computer screen watching 30-second spot after 30-second spot wondering what decision in his life led him to becoming an ad critic.

But, like a real critic, you are rewarded for your efforts. You get paid, of course. But you also wake up Monday morning after the game—hungover as all hell and likely scheduled to do radio or TV interviews—and there’s your epic piece in print and online.

And there are the comments rolling in, telling you you’re a fucking idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

~~~

While you’re here, consider buying one of my novels. You’ll love ’em.

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