Today is Super Bowl Sunday, when Americans of all ages, locations and walks of life gather to witness and celebrate one of this country’s great traditions and cultural landmarks.
No, wait, football; that’s what we’re watching and cheering, football. That’s the point of the day’s festivities.
You can be excused the confusion, though, since the hype and speculation about the ads that will appear during the game broadcast threaten to match the hype and speculation about the game itself.
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Interestingly, the Super Bowl arrives as the institutions of football and advertising in U.S. culture are having some difficulties.
For football, the problems include games that are long in duration but short of action, chopped up by ads and challenges to rulings on the field; concussions and other physical tolls of the game on players; off-field misbehavior and franchise relocations.
For advertising, the problems are more focused but even more threatening: Is anyone actually watching or reading the ads businesses are spending so much money to shove in front of your eyes and ears?
Super Bowl advertising is the least likely to be affected by such an existential question. With such a huge audience, it’s likely to be one of the last holdouts for mass advertising traditionally delivered, that is until the National Football League figures out a way to turn the Super Bowl into a pay-per-view event.
It’s all the advertising on all the non-Super Bowl days in all media and venues — newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, billboards, direct mail, telemarketing, sign-wavers at busy intersections, websites, banners pulled by aircraft, bar coasters — that is the source of worry for both advertisers and those who build their business models on advertising dollars.
Everyone knows the problem: The number of channels or sources in the contemporary American entertainment and information marketplace is so huge as to render the concept of mass media meaningless and obsolete. Instead of three networks vying for shares of a prime-time audience, they’re competing with a vastly expanded universe of channels delivered by broadcast signal, cable, satellite and the internet. There’s a near-infinite universe of viewing options drawing viewers away, and with the proliferation of small mobile devices there are more opportunities for viewers to while away the hours on Facebook or simply texting.
Those of us in traditional media have been seeing the trend play out for at least two decades (fueled by other factors such as the decline of the traditional department store; go back to a daily newspaper from the 1950s or 1960s and look at those lovely acres of ads from multiple retailers).
The trends are still having an effect. The Seattle Times recently announced the closing of four community publications east of Lake Washington, citing the expected continuing slump in print advertising. The operators of Northwest Cable News, launched in an era when the trend in TV was for news and more news, pulled the plug earlier this year, citing viewer habits of going elsewhere for news.
The trends have a role in local controversies such as who pays what (if anything) for Click cable-TV service. Broadcasters and content providers trying to shore up their revenue are raising the fees they charge companies such as Click to carry their programming. Click’s costs go up, so Click’s rates go up.
It’s not just old media that are dealing with the interlocked, and sometimes dueling, matters of audience and ad revenue. If you peruse YouTube, you’ve probably noticed ads encroaching more and more on the start, finish and sometimes middle of videos. YouTube, you’ll recall, is owned by Google which, along with Facebook and other companies, is trying to mine every nugget of personal information about you that can be sold to potential advertisers on the premise that “we know what they’re looking for.”
The advertisers, meanwhile, are rethinking the whole notion of what advertising means and whether the traditional methods and approaches have any remaining relevance. The most recent presidential campaign, in which one candidate relied on a combination of the very traditional (the stump speech) and the very modern (Twitter), will only serve to accelerate the rethinking.
You’ll probably watch the ads during today’s game. You might even like or remember some of them. The big challenge for advertising and advertisers resumes tomorrow. How do they get potential customers to recall the advertising of, much less do business with, companies whose ads they didn’t see in the first place?
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.