I Analyzed Super Bowl Ads For Two Decades. Here’s What They Get Wrong.

I’ve watched more Super Bowl commercials—for a living—than just about anyone.

But I’m not an ad executive. I’m not a commercial director. And I’m not a film editor.

Nearly two decades ago, I served as the lead writer and, with my editor oversaw much of what was put together. USA TODAY’S iconic Ad Meter. Now in its 34th year, Ad Meter is still widely regarded as the unofficial authority on the Big Game’s top commercials. With sponsors paying roughly $7 million per 30-second slot, there’s a deeply held belief among Super Bowl advertisers that nothing on the planet is more important than creating the game’s “winning” commercial which, advertisers are convinced, will result in PR Nirvana and, yes, higher sales.
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But after six years away from the Ad Meter fray — and a pandemic in-between — something hit me the other day that hadn’t fully entered my Super Bowl ad-obsessed mind: Super Bowl commercials are mostly a bunch of hooey.

The secret to a happy life isn’t in drinking a Bud Lite. You could drive a BMW. Oder (sorry Jeff Bezos), having an Amazon Prime account.

The company we keep is important. Not the people we meet at an once-a year Super Bowl beer fest. But those folks we actually care about — and who care about us — day in and day out.

Madison Avenue desperately wants to tell us the opposite. We are being led to believe that any diet can make us more successful. You are encouraged to place a legal wager on any sporting event and you can achieve sublime happiness. We are encouraged to believe that we can find existential happiness by simply punching some numbers on our phones and getting touchless food delivered right to our door.

Over the years I traveled all across America to observe and report on Super Bowl ads shoots. There were many celebrities in these ads, including Muhammad Ali, Danica Pat and Michael Jordan. Many Super Bowl advertisers are utterly convinced that the secret ingredient to a ‘winning’ Super Bowl ad is a hot-shot celebrity. Wrong. Other people swear by adorable dogs and farm animals. Wrong, again. A great Super Bowl ad isn’t about who or what appears in it. An ad for Super Bowl must be compelling and have an end, middle, or unexpected conclusion that grabs your heartstrings.

However, the majority of Super Bowl advertisements feed the ego, but not the soul. The ads are composed and reveled by committee. The company executives closely examine them before they broadcast. My work allowed me to meet Joe Pytka. He is arguably the greatest Super Bowl commercial director and still works today at age 83. He would insist on setting up a court for basketball during Super Bowl commercial shoots to relieve stress. Once I asked him to explain why he film Super Bowl commercials in such a different way than other ads. “It’s all bulls—t,” he responded, in Pytkaesque fashion. “A great ad is a great ad.”

The pandemic, however, reminded me of the more important things.

It helped me realize that the most meaningful email I send out each day isn’t the one that lands me another freelance writing gig, but the one to my youngest daughter, Becca, some 3,000 miles away at college, that reminds her I love her; or the email I send to my oldest daughter, Rachel, a vet school candidate, that reminds her I’m right by her side.

It taught me that my favorite moment of each day is when I push back from my desk at 3:45 PM, clasp the leash around our pooch, Maui, and hoof-it to the neighborhood park where I meet my wife, Evelyne, on her way home from the middle school where she’s a special ed classroom aide. I learned that unplanned phone calls to my California friends and Cleveland buddies are more life-affirming then a fresh brew, a brand new set of wheels or the UPS truck coming in front my house.

With an assist from the pandemic, I also finally learned the lesson that’s been sitting smack in front of me for so many years: Giving beats getting.

That, of course, is the flip side of what the nation’s biggest and highest-spending marketers will be shouting from their Super Bowl-infused mountaintops on Sunday.

It took a pandemic to help me figure it out.

Perhaps because during the pandemic I wasn’t just cut off from friends and siblings, but from the three days of volunteer work that gave me peace of mind. There will be no Mondays spent at the county park visitors centre’s welcome desk. Don’t spend Wednesday afternoons preparing and distributing meals to the homeless shelter. There will be no Friday morning distribution of food at the food bank.

Things recently opened up a bit, so I’ve returned to my Friday food bank gig. But I’m sure missing the other two.

Beatrice, my grandmother, has never seen a Super Bowl commercial. But for decades, well into her eighties, she found inner bliss as the go-to-gal whose volunteer mission was to cheer-up anxious pre-and post-surgery patients, whom she wheeled through the cold corridors at one of Cleveland’s biggest hospitals. A few of her trophies and plaques that she was presented with were left behind as a legacy. But she didn’t do it for the awards. It was for the goosebumps it gave her every day.

It didn’t take a pandemic for her to figure that out. It was a matter of faith.

If you watch The Big Game on Sunday and its 50-odd commercials so desperately trying to sell you on their buy-it-all formula for happiness, remember that happiness doesn’t come in a 12-ounce beer can; a driver’s seat that doubles as a massage chair, or an Amazon Prime box.

You give it.


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