Super Bowl Commercial, Dead at 32
Sunday, February 5, 2012. After a long, painful illness, the most beloved of all television ads, The Super Bowl Commercial, passed away on Sunday night.
Super Bowl-watching America, I’m very sorry for your loss.
Ads had run on the Super Bowl since the first broadcast in 1967, but The Super Bowl Commercial we all know and love was born on January 20, 1980. Football fans know it as the “Mean Joe Green” commercial, created for the Coca-Cola Company. Though it actually first aired in 1979, it reached a huge audience—more than 70 million viewers—when it aired on Super Bowl XIV. Apparently, people liked what they saw. Its combination of celebrity, storytelling, surprise and emotion created a commercial that by all measures is now regarded as a classic, and the standard by which all future Super Bowl ads would be judged.
But, The Super Bowl Commercial was still in diapers. It wouldn’t reach maturity until four years later, during Super Bowl XVIII.
January 22, 1984. Super Bowl Sunday. Everything is comfortably in place: Pageantry, check. Spectacle, check. Lame halftime show, check. Familiar parade of ads for cars, movies and beverages, check. And then it happened. During the third quarter of a game that was over before the end of the first half, nearly 80 million people witnessed something the likes of which they’d never seen before. Directed by Ridley Scott, the first commercial for Apple Computer’s newest product, the Macintosh, debuted. It was epic storytelling. Cinematic. Visually arresting. Provocative. Stunning. Before anybody knew what had hit them, it was over. Though it only aired on national television one time—it aired regionally a handful more—“1984” was immediately deemed a masterpiece, and has since been proclaimed one of the best commercials of all time.
And with that, the modern big-story, big-budget Super Bowl Commercial came of age.
The years that followed were good to The Super Bowl Commercial. Ever the entertainer, appearing in the form of dogs, frogs, chameleons and horses, polar bears, pop singers and supermodels—sometimes all at once—it happily returned to center stage once a year, performing for America. We ate it up. Couldn’t get enough. Advertisers lined up to enlist the services of The Commercial, hoping to capture the hearts and minds of tens of millions in 30 seconds. Broadcasters, eyeing the frenzy, were more than happy to enforce the law of supply and demand. The cost for The Commercial to appear on stage soared—two times, three times, five times—to ten times the price.
As the cost for an appearance went up, so did the stakes. Advertisers became increasingly preoccupied with the rapidly escalating high-stakes nature of the venue. Avoiding failure became the objective. Formula was the solution. What’s worked in the past? Talking anything—animals, babies, cars, supermodels—plays well. Computer-generated not-so-special effects? Awesome. Don’t forget celebrities. And, people want to laugh, how about pie-in-the-face-banana-peel-slip-kick-in-the-nether-bits? Perfect.
At the same time, viewers started showing up with a keen sense of what they should be seeing. They wanted to be surprised. And entertained. Surprised and entertained. Nothing less. Advertisers and viewers were on a collision course, autopilots set and locked. And The Super Bowl Commercial was an unwitting passenger.
In the end, while the actual time of death is difficult to determine, the cause was apparent. A debilitating level of greed and cowardice replaced bravery and invention. The Commercial’s final days were spent in seclusion, too sick to even take visitors.
On Sunday night, 110 million people witnessed The Super Bowl Commercial’s long-anticipated demise. It was an unpleasant spectacle preceded by a parade of ideas distinguished only by their bloated production price tags. By halftime, The Super Bowl Commercial we all love had lost the battle. With its final breath, in a barely audible voice it whispered two words, “Go Daddy,” and quietly slipped away.
Then, something remarkable happened. In full view of the largest audience in American television history, The Super Bowl Commercial opened its eyes, sat up, jumped out of bed, and began to perform. It told a story about a re-born Detroit, and about the spirit of America that wouldn’t, couldn’t give up. No talking animals. No special effects. No gags. No cheap laughs. No formula.
It was stunning. Riveting. Provocative. Bold. Unexpected. Everything we remembered. Everything The Commercial used to be. Everything we wanted it to be.
The Super Bowl Commercial was dead. I saw it with my own eyes. I can’t explain what happened after that (I don’t know if I’d call it a miracle, that’s for the experts to decide). All I know is when The Commercial told the Chrysler story, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
And that’s exactly what Super Bowl Commercials are supposed to be.
Don Fibich serves as Creative Director at Kemp Goldberg Partners. During his career, he has worked on eight Super Bowl commercials.Posted under Kemp Goldberg Partners by Don Fibich, Creative Director