By Philip Gull
This Weekend, for One Night Only: The Great Game of Pastcolony Handegg
This Sunday Evening (read: Monday Morning) on the balmy shores of Adland, a small coastal idyll, situated a few miles from the rivermouth formed where the great River Culture flows out and is swallowed up into the vast, saline depth of the Ocean of Focus Group, it is our sector’s Saturnalia.
Will there be an advert enshrined in immediate immortality, à la Apple in 1984? Will there be a high-concept change-gamer, like last year’s Tide spot which appropriated every advert after it?
Or will there be opulent dross? A deflated procession of Jeff Koons’ balloons dogs, expensively-executed kitsch? There will, my dear reader and future fellow-viewer, probably be a bit of both.
Come Sunday, the Super Bowl it is. And for adverts, the Super Bowl is it. The great, glossy plinth on which, for a single day each year, humble adverts can stand proudly between artists with platinum selling tracks and $150 million quarterbacks, and claim itself to be not a vampire of Culture but a viable contributor to it.
There is plenty we can learn from the advertisement within the Super Bowl.
Breaks at the end of the first and fourth quarter so AT&T can tell me about their new broadband speed. Timeouts so a Ford F-150 pickup truck can accelerate, with the perfect amount of swerving to elicit excitement but still suggest grip, through a Nevadan vista as the sun sets on the American Dream. Pauses in-between plays themselves, so a compressed clip of medieval nowhere can echo “Dilly Dilly” around the world.
But it is also interesting to consider how the Super Bowl is advertisement. For the NFL.
There’s a lot to learn from league which wasn’t even representing the most popular sport in in its country in the 1980s, but which is now a seemingly unassailable force of televised entertainment.
In 2019, the most valuable sports franchise in the world isn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona or Man U. It’s the Dallas Cowboys. There are 32 teams in the NFL. 29 of them are in the top 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world.
What makes the NFL such an interesting brand is that its success is, viewed from one perspective, paradoxical.
What are these attributes?
- Scarcity and Clarity
In the 2017-18 season, Real Madrid played 62 games of “football”. 38 in the league, 24 in various cups. 5 different cups, to be exact.
In the 2017-18 season, the Dallas Cowboys played 16 games of “football”. All in one competition.
The NFL lasts under 4 months. The most valuable sports franchise on earth, provided they don’t make the playoffs, has 0 competitive games for 8 months of the year. There is one competitive trophy – this Super Bowl gig – and if you get knocked out, or down, Chumbawamba logic doesn’t grant you a second chance.
By contrast, you can always watch Real Madrid play football. They play a football game on average every 6 days of the year, after the summer break is taken into account. There’s always football. Always another tournament to compete in.
Which of these makes for a more compelling product?
Real Madrid have to play away at Eibar for 1/38th of your season to aggregate enough points to beat Barcelona by drawing three less games than them.
American Football is structured so that every game matters.
You get 16 brief games, and then you go straight into a knockout tournament of the twelve best teams.
The hope and disappointment are absolute. There is no consolidatory Carabao Cup. You’re either “alive” or “dead”.
But when you win, you win it all. Perfection is a magnetic concept for man, and the NFL knows this.
American Football makes you wait. This is, I believe, the single best and most counter-intuitive reason for its success.
8 months of the year. Waiting.
This gives the fan time. And if the fan has time, he or she can participate in the narratives of their team, in the hope, the dreams. And the anticipation.
If you can sell your brand’s rarity as a virtue – be it a limited edition watch, or your once-a-year Christmas ad – something strange happens. People look forward to it. They listen to the voice that says if it isn’t quantity, it might just be quality.
- Parity and Imbalance
Everyone loves a winner.
Everyone loves a level playing field too.
The average annual wage for a Man U player? £6.6 million. For a Cardiff City player? £900,000.
The average annual wage for an NFL player on all 32 teams? $2.1 million. Because a wage cap forces every team to pay their squad almost identical amounts of money.
It seems to be a psychological truth that people respond most strongly to success when it comes through personal effort and excellence.
You still value the talent of your players, but intangibles come in more, too: the heart and chemistry and resilience of a team, assembled for the same cost as their opponents.
A competition with 32 Davids is far more unpredictable, and usually closer, than one with 4-5 Goliaths and the remaining Davids to make up the numbers.
The crucial thing here is that just because every team pays its players (as a squad) the same amount, doesn’t mean they are all the same. They is much more talk of ‘identity’ in American Football – and this probably comes from an implicit realisation that the structural parity between teams forces differentiation. The more commoditisation, the more you need advertisement.
And don’t buy success. Earn it.
- Brain and Brawn
Stop – start – stop – start – stop – start – stop – start.
The structure of American Football is uniquely suited for ads.
But also for thinking.
If you can plan something in advance, a huge amount of strategy, organisation and game theory can be applied.
But it then still comes down to how quickly you can hit someone in the mouth before they hit you.
American Football is highly cerebral and joyously aggressive.
It helps to scheme.
It helps to play mean.
I don’t know if there’s another sport that leaves both sides of your brain fulfilled in the same way.
Chess MMA hasn’t taken off yet.