The Online Super Bowl?

A long time ago, I listened to the creative director for a site called Quokka speak at a conference. Quokka was one of the media darlings of the late ’90s. It had a site that broadcast big sporting events, like yacht races. It even promised to show the Tour de France at one point. Yeesh. Promises, promises.

I say that, of course, because this was one more great idea that we weren’t able to hold together. I don’t know the details, but Quokka disappeared from the scene around the same time everyone else did.

But not before I saw that director speak at the conference. And he said something (to that packed, packed room) that stuck with me for literally nine years. He said a three-hour football game was a terrible thing to put on the Internet, but a three-week yacht race was a great thing to put on it.

He didn’t offer any more explanation than that, but I totally got it. Football games are compact experiences. You simply watch them. But long races, such as those held in boating and cycling, are evolving stories, with tons of data, lots of details, and rich, rich narratives. That depth? That’s what makes for good Internet-ing (as opposed to good viewing).

I’m reminded of this quote because we just had our biggest three-hour football game of the year here in the U.S., the Super Bowl. And as culture has evolved, the Super Bowl has turned into the biggest ad day of the year (although the Oscars are beginning to challenge that spot, particularly among women). So I think about the question that’s continually asked of our medium: what is our Super Bowl?

We haven’t got one. Or rather, we have something entirely different.

What’s the Super Bowl Got?

What’s the big deal for advertisers? Why bother with the Super Bowl? There are certainly people who believe the Super Bowl is a huge waste of ad dollars. I don’t entirely disagree, but I do think there’s some merit to advertising on the game:

  • Having a Super Bowl ad says something. It tells the world you’re a player worth paying attention to.

  • Advertising is a creative endeavor, and this is one day when creativity (or what passes for it) truly rules the roost.
  • Lots of people watch the Super Bowl (duh!).

What does online offer that can hold a candle to this big day? There’s certainly an opportunity to get a lot of eyeballs if you buy up MSN, AOL, and Yahoo home pages on a particular day. Creativity can really be exploded online. And as far as being a player, search, the great leveler, enables anyone with a relevant product, from a guy in his garage to a multinational company, to have a slice of a results page.

Yet somehow none of these really seem to come close to the weight of the Super Bowl. It’s probably a cultural thing, something that transcends economics. But it can’t be ignored.

Shoot. It shouldn’t be ignored. It should be embraced!

What We’ve Got

There isn’t an online Super Bowl because of that Quokka guy’s pronouncement. There isn’t that monolithic, focused, all-advertisers-aboard extravaganza. A big, over-the-top, quickie gag involving a monkey isn’t the right thing to put on the Internet. A rich, deep, involving story is.

This essentially means if you want an online Super Bowl, go out and make one yourself. We don’t expect everyone to show up at a particular place at a particular time online. Instead, we build, build, build. The best online campaigns, the ones that capture the lion’s share of attention, are never single ads. Rather, they’re evolving campaigns.

Consider some superstars from recent online advertising history, things like the massively innovative “I Love Bees” campaign for Xbox from a few years back. This was creativity to the extreme, but it built slowly and offered consumers the opportunity to plumb the depths of the experience, about as far down as they wanted to go. Or Nike’s “The Art of Speed” campaign on Gawker, where it showcased 15 short films on the topic of speed.

I’m in favor of big marketing campaigns. I appreciate the drive and desire to do something that gets noticed and leaves a mark. I see the Super Bowl as that opportunity for broadcast. But more than that, the idea of bigness translates to online. Provided you know how to speak the language.

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