You know, don’t you, that you can DVR the Super Bowl on Sunday night, and start watching the game 20 or so minutes after kickoff? That way, you can fast-forward through all of the commercials. And then you’ll be 100 percent safe from the Farmer’s Insurance jingle, that subliminal terrorist of ads. “Bum ba dum bum bum bum bum.”
You can. But, like most of the 100-plus million people who’ll tune into the most watched TV event of the year, you won’t. Super Bowl ads are a serious symptom of our annual bout of Super Bowl fever, despite the fact that, during the rest of the year, we make a concerted effort to dodge TV ads at all costs.
And we don’t just watch Super Bowl ads; we spend at least a week before they appear, and then a day or two afterward, musing about them, giggling over them, grading them. This is the era of Internet memes, and Super Bowl ads — short, often jokey, always slick — fit right in, as they reach into and around our online feeds like digital ivy. The ads get extracurricular action in social media, in the same way late-night TV segments do. Some brands still hold their ads back, hoping to surprise viewers during the game, but more and more aim for pre-release chatter — such as this article.
For example, by Wednesday of the week leading up to this year’s game, a 90-second star-studded Amazon ad had already won approval from the millions of viewers who’d already seen it on YouTube. In the thoroughly enjoyable ad, Alexa loses her voice, forcing Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to bring in famous people to lend their own voices. Gordon Ramsay, Cardi B, Rebel Wilson — they all lead up to the commerical’s big get, Anthony Hopkins, who tells a woman asking Alexa to “Call Brandon” that she can’t: “I’m afraid,” he says in his best Hannibal Lecter voice, “Brandon is a little tied up.”
In a way, these ads are like MTV videos from back in the day; they were ads, that was for sure, but they were also artful little creations in their own right, and they sometimes stood up to multiple viewings. This year’s Kia ad featuring Steven Tyler seems like an MTV-video-styled concept — see Coldplay’s backward-moving video for “The Scientist,” for example. To the strains of “Dream On,” Tyler race-drives a Kia around a track — entirely in reverse, guided by the rearview camera screen — and emerges from his car many years younger.
Another ad that is getting some life before and, mostly likely, after its TV air date is a rap battle between Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman. It’s hard to look away from this one. Dinklage, breathing fire and lip-syncing to Busta Rhymes, represents Doritos Blaze; Freeman, in a frigid scenario, and lip-syncing to Missy Elliot, represents Mountain Dew Ice. Who’ll win? Pepsico, which owns both companies. Who won’t win? The people ingesting whatever food-ish like stuff that goes into making those “spicy” and “icy” products — but that’s a different story.
Other ads released online in the days ahead of the game include the likes of Bill Hader, Keanu Reeves, Danny DeVito, and Chris Pratt.
Why would Pepsico — and all these other corporations — spend so much money for TV ads? Isn’t the future about more targeted ads online? NBC, which is airing the Super Bowl this year, is charging $5 million for every 30-second pop. That’s a lot of dough, and it doesn’t include the costs of making these commercials, which, particularly with star-led pieces such as the Amazon ad, can be extremely pricy.
The reason they’re willing to pay so much is that the Super Bowl remains a TV event that viewers prefer to watch live. It is, to use a phrase from long ago, appointment TV, along with awards shows, other sports including the Olympics, and reality TV finales. There’s the symbolic import of being among the companies wealthy enough to advertise during the Super Bowl, but it’s the guaranteed viewership that keeps these brand names coming back.
At this point in the evolution of the Super Bowl ad phenomenon, advertisers are releasing advance trailers for their ads. Yup, ads for ads. And if that sounds crazy, remember that, sometimes, you can only watch those trailers after watching a short YouTube ad. So that’s an ad for an ad for an ad. And the Super Bowl hasn’t even started yet.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.