At the end of this post, I bravely name the best ad of Super Bowl 43. Hint: NBC got no revenue from this particular ad.
Long before the game began, CBS began Super Bowl Sunday by understanding the day much better than NBC. The famously laid-back, magazine-style show Sunday Morning was marking its own 30th anniversary. Part of the celebration was a discussion of the cultural significance of Sunday in American life.
Historian Craig Harline, author of Sunday: A history of the first day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl, pointed out that America declared itself a Christian nation from the start and a host of laws restricting what people couldn’t do on Sunday quickly took shape. The sanctity of the day became part and parcel of America’s social and religious identity.
“It was no small thing for ‘Super Bowl’ to become an adjective for Sunday,” said Harline. And then he described the Super Bowl: “It’s this odd combination of religion, strip tease show and who knows what else. It’s all kinds of things going on. But certainly it’s bigger than football. It’s about an American civil religion.”
At the core of Story’s practice and at the center of the post-advertising age is the (now universally acknowledged) fact that audiences are able to watch what they want to watch and ignore the rest. The magic of the Super Bowl is not that the ads are good, bad or deeply offensive. The magic is that they are momentarily transformed from TV commercials to part of the show.
Suddenly, through the alchemy of America’s greatest spectacle, mere ads become desired, watchable content. (Sadly, there’s a bit of Cinderella here, too, because after the ball(game), the ads turn back to ads again and the fantasy ends.)
Endless commentators tell us that 30-second Super Bowl spots are worth $3 million each (plus production costs) because they will be endlessly discussed, written about and commented on in all media and shown and re-shown on the web and TV. But the real miracle you get for your three million bucks (plus production costs) is simply this: Most people will actually watch your ad for once.
In the post-advertising age, that is a Super Natural Phenomenon.
Just before the big game, Bruce Springsteen was interviewed by NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, who asked why The Boss had suddenly decided to agree to do the Super Bowl halftime show after turning it down repeatedly for more than three decades. The Boss replied, “I’ve got a new album to promote.” Springsteen, at least, understands in his gut that America’s “civil religion” is mostly about commerce. His 12-minute halftime show was without a doubt the best ad aired during the game and his new opus, “Working on a Dream,” should see a sales bump bigger than Pepsi’s.