Like all big games, Super Bowl XLIII was all about match-ups. How would the high-powered offense of the Cinderella Arizona Cardinals match up with the bone-crushing defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers?
How would the two coaches match up in the chess game of strategic moves that can see victory turn into defeat on one single play?
And, most importantly for some of us, how would our brand messages match up to consumers' expectations during the economic Armageddon we find ourselves in? But maybe the real question was: can't we all just forget the sorry state we're in for a few hours, enjoy a good football game and have a laugh at a few funny commercials?
This year's Super Bowl ad plans were dissected and criticised more than any other in history. Researchers came out of the woodwork predicting that low consumer confidence would result in record-low recall of Super Bowl ads. One "ad guru" was quoted as saying it is a desperate move to buy time on this year's game.
Digital experts railed that TV is a dinosaur and the Super Bowl the biggest T-Rex of all. Business writers questioned the wisdom of spending an average of $3 million for a 30-second spot while under the strain of our economic woes. That's $300,000 per second. Better make those seconds count.
On other hand, where else can a marketer reach more than 100 million people in one place, many of whom tuned in just to see the commercials? And what's the value of having those commercials viewed and voted on, commented on and blogged about on innumerable websites before, during and after the game? The "game within the Game" has really become "the game beyond the Game". In the end, if done well, it all translates into good feelings about a brand. And that translates into sales.
Expectations by consumers have been built about which brands will be part of the game experience. Our client, Anheuser-Busch InBev, was there, of course, for the Budweiser and Bud Light brands. PepsiCo was back in a big way with several of its brands. Coke, Heineken, Kellogg and General Electric were there.
The car companies Audi, Toyota and Hyundai played this year, although the bailout brothers GM, Chrysler and Ford stayed on the sidelines. Both Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com were there. That made me wonder if the question this year wasn't "do you hate your job?" as Career Builder asked, but "do you have a job?" And in the most telling sign of the times, Ed McMahon and MC Hammer were there cajoling us to trade our gold for cash at Cash4Gold.com. Wow.
Of course, for those who didn't want to be in the Super Bowl, the Lingerie Bowl and the Puppy Bowl were also played on Sunday. I haven't seen the ratings on those two yet.
As for some of the more interesting match-ups on the game, well, of course I'm prejudiced, but I felt Budweiser managed to live up to consumer expectations and surprise them too with those American idols and icons, the Clydesdales. What would a Super Bowl be without the heartwarming, yet fun, stories about the Clydesdales? Bud Light capitalised by staying in that humour groove it owns.
Pepsi Max featured Bud Light-like humour. Humour works on the Super Bowl. I found the new strategy intriguing too: the first diet soft drink for men. Interesting positioning.
Usually, linear storytelling works best on the Super Bowl, but the Pepsi brand found a way to tell a "generational" story in a non- linear way in the celebrity-packed "refresh anthem". It's a traditional Pepsi formula, but it felt relevant for today.
Coca-Cola has done some of the best work out there the past few years. Last year's "parade balloons" was absolutely one of the best moments on the game. This year, "heist" was beautifully produced but seems a bit like a lightweight version of the magnificent "happiness factory".
And to play football at this level, a player has to have a lot of, uh, guts. Give Coke Zero credit for having the guts to parody the all-time classic Mean Joe Greene spot. But one Troy Polamula and two Coke Zero brand managers don't equal Mean Joe Greene.
I thought Monster.com beat CareerBuilder.com. I wonder if people found that strange Career Builder spot more annoying than anything. As for Monster.com, I'm proposing a new category in Cannes: best use of a moose's ass in a 30-second commercial.
And I was glad to hear from Hulu.com that television really does rot my brain.
Most fans watch the Super Bowl with friends and family or at a party. It's a cliche to say that animals and babies work in that setting but ... animals and babies work. The E*Trade baby gave us some sound financial advice. Pedigree asked us to adopt a dog because dogs are better pets than rhinos or ostriches. Who can argue with that?
Doritos did the consumer-generated thing, picking from a group of entries. I'm not a big fan of "crystal ball", but my 82-year-old dad laughed out loud. So there. The Doritos brand gets well-deserved credit for bringing new thinking to the game.
And finally, let's talk about what was to be the biggest "innovation" on the game: the 3D commercials from SoBe Lifewater and the DreamWorks movie Monsters vs. Aliens. When the time came, I put on my 3D glasses. But I'm not sure I saw much in 3D. My wife thought it was fun. I thought what was missing, 3D or not, was an idea.
In the end, Super Bowl advertising is not about critics dissecting, criticising, comparing and bitching. It's about average Americans "watchin' the game, havin' a Bud" and having a little fun.
On that score, a thrilling Super Bowl XLIII kept us in our seats to the very end. So I think everyone got their money's worth.
Visit brandrepublic.com/campaign/superbowl2009 to view the ads
- Bob Scarpelli is the chairman and chief creative officer at DDB Worldwide.