As an observer of corporate advertising, I found the quality and style of the Super Bowl 50 ads disappointing. Once again, there were plenty of cute animals and celebrities scattered about like confetti, along with bits of nostalgia, optimism, poignancy and humor. A bit of escapism, but nothing blew me away as in years past. If there was an overarching theme, it was probably the frenetic anxiety that went into crafting these very expensive experiments. And given the price tag of $160,000 per second for Super Bowl ads in 2016, that anxiety is well placed.
Many viewers seeking a preview of this year’s ads online also saw a kind of “meta” Super Bowl ad, targeting the advertising insiders themselves. Adobe Marketing Cloud’s 60-second spot featured a disheveled executive in a seedy bar, confessing that he had just gambled $4 million on the big game, noting that, worst of all, “it’s not even my money.” Of course, the ad manager’s wager is his company’s money – committed to an ad campaign that, if unsuccessful, could sink the product he’s managing. The barflies around him who have never gambled more than a few thousand dollars of their own money on football itself look on in shock and embarrassment at this reckless move. More than a few real life executives have indeed lost their jobs when ads went south.
This scenario, part of Adobe’s ongoing “Do You Know What Your Marketing Is Doing?” campaign, reflects well how many in the business world feel about high-risk marketing gambits. The problem itself is nothing new – simply the latest iteration of the century-old saying attributed to corporate advertising pioneer John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
From my perspective, business leaders are correct to be worried that half of their marketing dollars are going astray, but not necessarily in the way that Wanamaker meant. Traditional advertising focuses on increasing sales by getting “consumer eyes” on products and illustrating how those products advance the consumer’s self-interest. However, in today’s world, companies must concern themselves with how well they perform in two different worlds – the private, self-interest world of consumers, where product reputation is key, and the political, cultural-value world of citizens, where how the public views a company’s legitimacy is paramount. Selling your brand to customers is, unfortunately, only half of the equation. A company must also sell itself to citizens and the politicians they elect. With government regulations alone imposing some $2 trillion of costs on our economy every year, sustainable profitability requires that a firm’s ads reach both audiences.
Even with all of the expertise provided by public affairs and advertising firms, there seems to be little awareness of this “two worlds” profitability challenge. Marketing researchers do focus on whether the ad in question motivates consumers to buy, but rarely on whether it engenders legitimacy with voters. Ads that encourage us to love our cars can also lead us to support greater government controls on automobility. An ad that pushes one customer to buy beer might motivate another to support Prohibition-style restrictions. CEOs who let their marketing directors ignore these political realities are running a risk and missing an opportunity to reduce their political vulnerability.
This short-sightedness is, on one level, understandable. Ad buys are made by marketing vice presidents who are rewarded for increased consumer sales. The political costs that threaten profits are the responsibility of government affairs vice presidents who monitor and seek to influence the federal red tape factory. CEOs, however, having delegated responsibility for consumer outreach to one team and political defense to another, should be aware that those silos are often not coordinating their activities, thus creating a major threat to profitability.
The idea of dual-purpose advertising is not new. Amos Stote, an early leader in the world of business marketing, observed that too many firms see advertising as relevant only to the extent it reaches customers, failing to realize that many who appreciate your products may also favor imposing costly political controls. His 1924 article “Beware of the Business Muckraker” noted that a satisfied customer might still become a bitter enemy. Stote’s article, written at a time when political factors were just beginning to affect corporate bottom lines, was prescient about the need to develop joint consumer-citizen advertising strategies.
Some firms, from time to time, have done so. Iconic ads like Coca-Cola’s 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” and Apple’s reinterpretation of George Orwell in “1984” created positive emotional associations that strengthened their respective brands in both individual and societal terms. Another favorite of mine, AT&T’s 1997 mobile phone ad “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” highlighted the liberating value of new technology for single, working mothers.
In this Super Bowl, perhaps surprisingly, it was the NFL’s own ad, “Super Bowl Babies,” that best linked its industry to traditional values, although the Jeep “Portraits” ad was a close second. SunTrust’s “Hold Your Breath” spot was an imaginative attempt to show how banks can help us handle financial instability. In contrast, some firms lapsed into politically correct apologetics. The Helen Mirren “Give a Damn” Budweiser ad even featured a British Dame who once played an alcoholic detective lecturing American beer drinkers – tsk, tsk! Colgate’s nanny-style “Every Drop Counts” conservation ad might have noted that water is politically, not privately, managed, rather than blame water shortages on you and me. The millions spent on these ads could have done so much more.
Hopefully, marketing advisory firms like Adobe and, even better, their corporate customers, will broaden their future communication goals. If firms were to complement their reputational goals with legitimizing objectives in these creative communiques, the attacks on business and capitalism more generally could be lessened. Capitalist enterprises have done much to expand consumer freedom, have made their products safer and more affordable, and have long provided much of the societal web that makes communities possible. If firms take up this challenge, our populace might better realize how truly “super” American capitalism is.
Originally posted at Forbes.