With another Super Bowl comes another venerable tradition — the contest to produce the best ads. It's the biggest event of the advertising year — a 30-second Super Bowl XLIX ad will cost about $4.5 million — and represents one of the most significant opportunities for businesses to define themselves.
The ads also highlight the ongoing struggle in corporate communications to define the role and social utility of the corporation.
Most corporate ads make the case that the company's products or services advance the audience's consumer interests. This role is critical in a capitalist economy, where relatively unknown products and brands must swiftly gain reputation if they're to achieve and maintain profitability.
But another critical — and too often neglected — role of advertising is in gaining moral legitimacy for the company and product itself. Businesses need to communicate their societal values if they are to overcome widespread anti-business and, increasingly, anti-technology attitudes. Firms need to convey that their products not only make consumers' lives easier, but also make the world a better place.
Advertising might, but rarely attempts, that legitimization role — the attempt to reach individuals as both consumers and citizens.
Failure to do so can prove costly, because a firm's profitability depends not only on its sales but also on the political burden it carries. Such burdens can be very large, given the annual compliance cost for federal regulations is now put at almost $2 trillion.
To check such political predation, companies need to tell Americans how their firm advances societal values, as well as individual self-interest. It's not enough for Joan Consumer to love her car if Joan Citizen still views the auto industry in a negative light.
This is a lot to ask of a TV spot trying to sell the new Toyota Camry to also seek to improve the public's view of the auto industry in general.
The good news is we don't need to reinvent the wheel. This challenge was forcefully addressed decades ago by Bruce Barton, father of modern businessadvertising, and recounted by historian Roland Marchand in his book, "Creating the Corporate Soul."
Barton, who made his mark in the golden age of print advertising, emphasized that the views held by customers about one company affected them all:
"If any manufacturer says, 'I do not care what the common mass of people think about my business, whether it be popular or unpopular with them,' that man is a liability to all industry.
"No major industry has any moral right to allow itself to be unexplained, misunderstood or publicly distrusted, for by its unpopularity it poisons the pond in which we all must fish."
For instance, the complex and costly regulatory requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank financial rule laws will continue to burden companies long after the Enron and Tyco scandals have faded from memory.
The most memorable Super Bowl ad to successfully establish a corporate identity was Apple's "1984" spot, evoking freedom against the tyranny of Big Brother. In fact, that ad may well have set the tone for the freewheeling culture and light regulatory environment that allowed the tech sector to develop into a powerful economic force.
More recent, and more traditional, are Budweiser's ads featuring its famous Clydesdales (including a 9/11 tribute). Now, some jaded viewers might complain that they have little to do with the product. But they do establish Budweiser as more than a brewer, but an iconic American institution.
These examples show there's no "right" way to gain legitimacy with the public. For Apple, a bold vision of the future is key; for Budweiser, an appeal to tradition. In determining the right approach, and putting it in practice, firms need to address what's known as the "principal/agent" problem.
In this example, the principal — the CEO — must balance the goals and motives of the various divisions within the firm, even as department heads — the agents — seek to maximize their own influence over the final message.
Typically, firms address consumers through marketing departments with a simple message: "Buy our product!" Meanwhile, they address citizens and policymakers via their legal and government affairs departments, which put out a completely different message: "Don't over-regulate our firm!"
If ads crafted to convey both messages are to be pursued, the CEO must coordinate these distinct communication challenges. The average CEO may well balk at having to integrate the efforts of seemingly unrelated and frequently antagonistic groups. But it's the above-average CEO who, when he or she pulls it off, will reap the rewards.