Advertisements in the Super Bowl: Where did all the stories go?

The NFL has spent nearly six decades delivering a pinnacle of social fandom in the Super Bowl, with two teams facing off for a chance at glory. Meanwhile, a war of brand marketing is being waged in brief but crucial ad placement.

Commercial breaks provide a tonic of brief but eventful storytelling. Hundreds of parties, and even more spectators, now place the sports world as second fiddle to the likes of endorsement culture.

Time does not come cheap in this appeal, as it is simply all or nothing for the businesses willing to participate. Modern figures clock in the ballpark of $7 million for 30 seconds of televised runtime, so ideas must be quick, expressive, and ideally, impactful. For both the game and the industry at large, there was one ad that first showed what it meant to do all three.

Ignited by the intellect of a young Steve Jobs, the Macintosh was released by Apple in 1984, with the company employing a crew of storytellers to roll out the product’s promotion.

Using the Super Bowl, the minds at the advertising agency “CHIAT DAY” lead the marketing charge. Uncertain of the global response, the addition of one last visionary gave them all the courage to take the full plunge.

Noted filmmaker Ridley Scott directed the minute long ad titled “1984” which saw a dystopian styled venue contrasted against a bright and expressive heroine. Tying a message of individuality to the product, the ad went on to run only one time, and Apple sold 72,000 computers within 100 days of its release.

Demonstrating what advertisements can and should be, professionals within the field say that this standard has been largely brushed away over a tarp of consumer pandering. 

“It’s not what it used to be,” said Nina Abnee, a DePaul professor who specialized in client relations in advertising. “It’s babies, it’s animals and celebrities. Particularly the celebrities. From my perspective, I’ve never really liked the ads that do the sensationalism for the sake of it.”

Not every ad will wield the creative backdrop that made “1984” the success that it was, but failing to pursue that image leads to a degraded industry.

“I have felt that it’s gotten too average,” said Dan Azzaro, a DePaul professor who dabbled in both the economic and creative sides of the business. “You find it[modern ads] following the trends, not necessarily making the trends. Sometimes you don’t have to shout to be heard.”

An extensive mythos of brand development provides a handful of standout campaigns that thrived in their moderation. Rather than boasting about the latest craze or siphoning their funds into the pockets of celebrity relevance, being original was the moto.

A trio of croaking frogs became the staple for Budweiser in 1995, with attempted assassinations and Broadway aspirations being woven into their narrative in the proceeding Super Bowl’s.

In 2008, E-Trade thought up a semi self-autonomous baby that touted the ease of investing in the comfort of his highchair, an ad model they still use today.

Less ghastly than Apple’s gray-tinged masterpiece, the two projects bore an original concept that people responded to. 

You have to think about your brand and your product and your category, and how much you play into culture,”  Azzaro said. Apple, Budweiser and E-Trade checked off each box in their own way. Standards of the past give a clear answer at why these boxes now lie unmarked.

“Let’s find a way to deliver a message that’s fresh, memorable, relatable, relevant, and can possibly change your behavior,” said Marshall Goldman, a DePaul professor who built his career in the creative side of the trade.  “Ninety-nine out of 100 of these Super Bowl ads put execution over idea and that’s completely ass-backwards.”

A pet food brand named The Farmer’s dog was that one out of 100 for this year’s game. Offering a simple but resonant story of a young girl and her brown labrador, within one minute the brands values were richly marketed.

A rare example within a sea of shallow promotions, ads like this give an emotional sign that good storytelling is still possible. Hopefully next year will see less trend following, and more trend setting, pushing flair to the side while bringing connection to the front.