Going Big: The Media Buy Is the Message

Thank you, whoever up in the clouds, for the Super Bowl: the one day a year I can freely talk to my wife, friends, and five-month-old baby about advertising — endlessly and without fear of reprisal. My opinions are even solicited! It’s like having everyone opt in to my Friendster network.

Everyone wants to know: How can it possibly be worth it? Costs are astonishing, after all, and the connection between the product and the game (beer the sole exception) is often tenuous. Business archeologists sifting through the Vesuvius-like dust coating the dot-coms of years gone by invariably find some Super Bowl ad plan. The ads are generally… weird. Is buying a Super Bowl spot really a good business practice, or did the frenzy and hype addle the brains of brand management?

The answer: Yes, buying a Super Bowl spot makes perfect sense, as long as you understand its purpose. It’s like buying a single impression. Be very clear what you hope to achieve. We spend the vast majority of our advertising and marketing careers working the middle: good buys targeted at good-size audiences. It helps to stop and consider the other end of the spectrum — the very big end — to see if it reveals anything about how to advertise.

The Very Big

I’ll watch the Super Bowl for the ads this year (in mid-October, the 49ers seemed to have forgotten how to run and catch). The perennial question: Why does it make sense to run an ad? The answer is usually it’s a great opportunity to speak to so many people.

I don’t buy it. You could spend that money on a few spots in a few places and reach just as many. The point of doing it during the Super Bowl is simple: It shows you can. That’s why there’s so much press done in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. The advertisers often release the ads to the media in advance! There are no surprises. I know already Bud is up for another big buy and Procter & Gamble (P&G) will enter the fray for the first time.

If you’re able to do a Super Bowl ad, it’s to show you’re a strong company — the dominant player in your field (a sports analogy!). The fact AOL is sponsoring the half-time show tells the world it has not only the money but also the stature to play at this level. The media buy is the message. Therefore, ad content is not all that important. Hence, dependence on cute sight gags involving monkeys. The important thing is you’re there.

Online, it’s the same thing. Some media buys are better than others simply because they’re big. Ford’s massive campaign for the F150 is a prime example. What better way to communicate the toughness, strength, and (yes) size of the product than by being big online? Meek is counterintuitive. The same can be said, in a smaller scope, of home-page takeovers and other rich media executions.

Yet there must be acceptance of the buy as part of the strategy. The buy should be central in communications, outside the company as well as within. Every employee at P&G will take at least some pride come Super Bowl Sunday when the ad appears.

Extend the Bang

OK, so a big buy generates a message of strength. That moment of pride need only be the beginning. Last year’s Super Bowl had a few companies that found clever ways to take the buy and use the Net to capture the momentum. This is really a best practice.

In some ways, last year’s Reebok Super Bowl spots were really ads for the Web site, where other short films were available. Pepsi’s Sierra Mist brand used the Web to generate excitement in advance of its spot, enabling visitors to vote on which ad actually aired during the game.

Before the Internet, the commercials had to stand on their own. They did their best in the allotted 30 seconds and hoped the jokes were funny enough to travel to the water cooler the next morning. Today, savvy brands use ads to tie back into a site — and keep the dialogue alive.

That, really, is what we can learn from big Super Bowl ads. The best commercials create what a former colleague of mine calls a “hot moment.” The consumer truly feels the brand’s emotional message. If the buy itself helps to charge that moment, all the better. But brands that allow the consumer to cool off are missing a great opportunity.

Related reading