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The Hard Sell: The Superbowl

Paul Solman reports on the advertising explosion surrounding the Superbowl.

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  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Super Bowl KM XXXV.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Pro football's Super Bowl, a TV event so popular, nine of the 15 most watched shows of all time have been this game. 130 million Americans tuned in this year, and saw 60 minutes of football stretched out over nearly four hours, with more ads than action.

  • COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN:

    Here it is, the 7-up backpack. Here Kenny, try it on. Not only does it have our logo, I've loaded it with an entire case of 7-up. Roll over Kenny, you're hiding the logo.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    These days Super Sunday is as much about ads as the game. Advertisers paid $2 million plus per half minute this year to pitch fans like these at Boston's Sports Depot. But in a sense, media critic Jean Kilbourne reminds us, all commercial TV show can be seen as pretext of the ads.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE, Author:

    The fundamental purpose is to sell audiences to advertisers. So although we've all grown up hearing, "this program is brought to you by the sponsor," the truth of course is exactly the opposite. We are brought to the sponsor by the program.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Kilbourne lectures, writes, and makes films about ads really mean and the ways advertisers vie for our attention, attention that's harder and harder to attract, given the throng of commercial messages surrounding us. They call it "ad creep." And you see it on the street… on the Net… even on the silver screen. Tom Hanks' latest film, "Castaway" has been called a feature length commercial for Federal Express.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    The average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every day, if you count television, radio, billboards, the magazines you happen to glance at. So obviously, advertisers have to break through the clutter.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The Super Bowl has become a showcase for cutting through the clutter.

  • BOB DOLE:

    Hi, I'm Bob Dole.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Kilbourne noted a recent ad theme evident this year, making the viewer feel like an insider with jokes about advertising itself — like Bob Dole sending up his previous pitch for Viagra.

  • BOB DOLE:

    My faithful little blue friend — an ice cold Pepsi-Cola.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    They're winking at the viewer. The viewer is winking back. But there is the message about Pepsi being the fountain of youth. So we think we're not being influenced, and we're not being brainwashed. But the message is getting through.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    In other words, we "ad insiders" are winking, all the way to the store — as with this Bud ad, for instance.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    He's so excited. He runs to get the drink in order to fuel the fire, which of course, alcohol is often sold to men as a way to get women aroused …

  • SPOKESMAN:

    I got two for the…

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    And he stumbles in there and what happens?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    This beer spot got a rise out of the crowd at the bar, and was voted the game's top ad in "USA Today."

  • PERSON:

    That's not that bad. (Screaming)

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But humor that's hipper than thou can be to hip than any of us, as NIKE found out when this spot aired last year during another big sports event.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    NIKE shocked people when it ran commercials during the Olympics that showed a woman being chased down by a chainsaw- wielding maniac. And it was very frightening. And this was shown during daytime. Kids were watching it. A lot of people were offended and horrified by this ad.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    The public outcry caused NIKE to pull the ad. But it reminded Jean Kilbourne that, for all their camaraderie, advertisers rarely have our best interests at heart. Consider the huge number of kids who watch the Super Bowl. Last year, Budweiser Beer used the game to popularize the catch phrase, "what's up?"

  • MAN:

    Yo.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    What's up?

  • MAN:

    Whaz up!

  • GROUP:

    Whaz up

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    This year the phrase made it to outer space as animation. To Kilbourne, Bud was playing to kids for good reason.

  • MAN:

    What's up!

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    They know if they can get kids to choose a certain brand when they're very young, they're very likely to stick with that for the rest of their lives.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    When it comes to us grown-ups, the hope is that not only will we think of advertisers as our hip, funny trends, but we'll like their product better than we like each other.

  • MAN:

    You missed a spot.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    So take the commercial in which the woman vacuums up her boyfriend. You know, here the products delivers her from an unsatisfying relationship. (Phone ringing) In this Bud Light commercial, the man isn't willing to go home just to be with the woman…

  • MAN:

    Hello?

  • WOMAN:

    Come home early.

  • MAN:

    I can't. I'm working.

  • WOMAN:

    I'll light some candles.

  • MAN:

    I'm swamped…

  • WOMAN:

    I bought Bud Light.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    But he is willing to race home in order to get the Bud Light. So, again and again, we get the message that people can't really be counted on. We can't really trust commitment from human beings, but we can get loyalty, give loyalty to a brand.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Do you find sometimes that products are more dependable or gratifying than other people?

  • WOMAN:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Is your beer more reliable than some of the people you know?

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Yes.

  • WOMAN:

    Say what?

  • MAN:

    I said a beer is more reliable than she is.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Now, you could read those reactions two ways: The fans have been suckered by the ads, or their lives have been somehow enhanced. And indeed, Susan Fournier's research at the Harvard Business School suggests it's only natural for people to form relationships with products.

  • SUSAN FOURNIER, Harvard Business School:

    I think, in a very fundamental level, it's a good thing because when I think of what a relationship is, and what it does for us, I think of a very fundamental function of providing meaning. And so products and brands and services provide meanings into our lives, they are helping us. They are helping us to understand who we are, who we want to be, what kind of statements we want to make to others.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Fournier has classified a whole range of people/product relationships, from "fling" to "best friendship" to "commitment."

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    And so how committed are you to Miller Lite in terms of your relationship to it?

  • WOMAN:

    Will you marry me?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Fournier has interviewed lots of consumers, including a mother of two devoted to products like Success Rice, Tide Detergent and Oil of Olay.

  • SUSAN FOURNIER:

    Certain brands provide for her a very deep meaning in terms of just being reliable, guaranteed to provide high quality, sort of being there for her.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Marketing Professor Nader Tavassoli goes even further.

  • NADER TAVASSOLI, MIT:

    If products can really replace relationships with other people, I don't know why that should be a bad thing. It might seem strange to us, and strange in terms of what we're used to, but if a product can give us a certain degree of satisfaction reliably over and over again, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    I mean, are you upset if a place is out of Marlboro lights?

  • WOMAN:

    Totally, absolutely. Distraught, and I don't know what to do.

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    Advertising doesn't make up feelings out of thin air. It takes very real human feelings and emotion, real needs, you know, the need we all have to love and be loved, to be respected, to have meaningful work. That's all fine. It takes these very real feelings, but then it yokes them with products. And it tells us that we can somehow get these needs met by buying products and that is always a lie, because the product can never deliver the goods.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But in the end, don't ad campaigns provide a sort of sense of community, for rituals like say, the Super Bowl?

  • CONSUMER:

    It's a lot of fun in the Budweiser commercials.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Have you drunk Bud because of it?

  • CONSUMER:

    Yes.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    You have? Because you want to identify with the whassup?

  • CONSUMER:

    Whassup!

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    This isn't real community. This is a corporate empire with something to sell. I would hate to think that an alien would go back to home base and when asked, "what did you learn about Earth?" Only have to say…

  • ALIEN IN COMMERCIAL:

    Whassup!

  • JEAN KILBOURNE:

    "Whassup?" As if that was it — that was the sum total.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    To which some might say, hey, lighten up, it's only a funny ad. Or, taking a longer view, that it's a little unnerving to think this might conceivably be the essence of American culture as of Super Bowl XXXV.

  • ALIENS IN COMMERCIAL:

    Whassup!

  • MAN IN COMMERCIAL:

    Oh, man. We are not alone.

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