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Super Bowl commercials: What works and what doesn’t

It wasn’t the best Super Bowl ever when the Oakland Raiders blew out the Washington Redskins back in January 1984. Nonetheless, history was made at the end of the third quarter, albeit off the field.

Apple, then a growing computer-maker that had yet to enter the mass consciousness, ran its “1984” TV spot promoting the upcoming launch of its Macintosh personal computer.

The ad during the football championship was history in the making. Or, to borrow an image from another sport, it “was the Babe Ruth of Super Bowl ads,” veteran Lancaster marketing and advertising executive David Taylor said.

“That elevated the whole game of Super Bowl spots. They pre-promoted it, telling everyone to stay tuned until the end of the third quarter, because you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984,’ (the book by George Orwell predicting a dark future), and it was an incredible ad,” said Taylor, who founded Lancaster’s Taylor Brand Group in 2005.

That Apple ad on Jan. 22, 1984 “showed that you can make an event out of your TV spot during the Super Bowl. And it was perfectly on-brand, because it was saying, ‘This is a computer you’ll control, it won’t control you,'” Taylor said.

Now, like the Super Bowl itself has grown from an afternoon game for football fans to a prime-time cultural extravaganza, and the halftime entertainment has gone from marching bands to Disney-themed shows to the likes of Lady Gaga, Super Bowl ads now are events, not commercials.

Fox, which is showing this Sunday’s game between New England and Atlanta, is charging anywhere from $5 million to $5.5 million for a 30-second ad.

And no wonder, Taylor said, noting that few other advertising opportunities in sports compare. “The Super Bowl is maintaining its ratings while other sports are declining. So to be able to deliver a live audience that’s not going to be able to DVR it is huge,” he said.

Taylor talked about some other ads that have stuck with him, for both good and not-so-good reasons.

He liked the 2011 Volkswagen “Darth Vader” ad, in which a little boy tried to throw his power onto the family dog and others, with no luck, until he succeeds with the family car. He didn’t know his dad was in the kitchen using the remote car lock.

“You could argue that was on-brand, because it has a remote starter built in that you could use, but is that really about their core (value), which is German engineering, or was that just a heartwarming spot about a kid?” Taylor wondered.

He also called it “a neat flip on the cliché” when Mercedes-Benz had supermodel Kate Upton about to wash a car, with the vehicle then actually being washed not by Upton but by a bunch of guys.

Tom Hollerbach, president of Gavin Advertising of York and Harrisburg, has seen a change in the approach to the Super Bowl ads over the past few years.

“It used to be that the ads were more entertaining than the games themselves, but that isn’t the case as much anymore,” he said. “Humor and sexiness were pretty much the exclusive approach,” as typified by ads for and one for Pepsi featuring Cindy Crawford, he continued.

“Now we are seeing ads that have taken a more serious tone,” sometimes too serious, he added: “Keep in mind, many people have Super Bowl parties and want to be entertained. They don’t want to be brought down while watching the game. That’s why the halftime show is also so important.”


Taylor said it’s usually not good when people don’t know what the ad is for, since “you want to be able to associate the brand with the spot, so if the spot is so entertaining that you lose sight of who the brand is, or it doesn’t connect it closely enough to the brand, then that’s a problem.”

On the other hand, he said, “People have a selective memory and a subconscious memory, and everybody says, ‘I don’t pay attention to advertising,’ and for the most part, we spend a lot of time trying to ignore advertising.”

“But advertisers and marketers invest in advertising on a regular basis because it’s working for them, not because they’re hoping,” he said. “They know it eventually gets through.”

Even an ad that doesn’t hit you over the head with the brand will likely get the word out effectively, Taylor said.

In the three-plus decades since Apple’s “1984” ad, Taylor now sees one spot after the other trying to one-up the next.

“It has become this huge kind of carnival for advertising, and there are people, including me, who are sometimes watching it more for the ads than for the game,” he said.

Gavin’s Hollerbach also has liked ads like the Darth Vader spot for Volkswagen, but feels that “the last couple of years have not had the level of creativity as in years past. The beer advertising which had always been edgy and funny has become much less so. But that’s not limited to the Super Bowl, in my opinion.”

It seems that marketers overall “are less likely to take risks with their Super Bowl advertising today. They know they will be scrutinized through the various polls, and they don’t want a negative rating.”

David O'Connor
Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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