It's Superbowl Sunday, and everyone's crowding around the largest available TV for the big game. If you're watching it because you're a fan of American football, fantastic. I'm not here to rain on your parade, and while I don't understand the appeal myself, I'm not writing this to attack football. So go have fun.
However, I have a fundamental objection to watching the Superbowl specifically for the commercials. It's something I hear often this time of year, from a variety of people, from those who are watching the game to support a significant other, to those who actively despise American football and will ignore the game in favor of the commercials. To put it simply, such an act is the absolute pinnacle of the worst parts of American consumerism - placing a higher value on the advertising than on the show sponsored by it.
It's no secret that, in the United States, we receive a flood of advertising from aspect of our experience, during every waking minute of the day. TV shows dedicate nearly a third of their timeslots to it, and TV networks use everything at their disposal to make them difficult to avoid. Movie theaters play upwards of 20 minutes of ads at the beginning of a film, plus the slideshow and audio streams of ads prior to the showtime. Magazines and newspapers dedicate as much space to advertising as they do to everything else combined. Nearly every website on the internet, especially news sites, displays ads, from simple text ads to big animated ones that hold the site hostage until you've viewed it. Most free mobile/smartphone apps are ad-supported. Video games have in-game ads. And, of course, there's spam of all forms, coming to us via every possible communications medium (including telephone and paper mail), as well as visually, on any flat surface willing to sell the space. With the advent of ad-sponsored Ebook readers, even literature isn't necessarily a safe haven anymore. It's often said, as a hyperbolic joke, that advertisers would show commercials in our sleep if they were able to, but is it really such a hyperbole?
It's also no secret that most Americans don't approve of this trend. We tolerate it, and get on with life, but aside from out-of-touch marketing executives, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who actively embraces prolific advertising, makes an effort to partake of it, or honestly wants more of it.
Except on Superbowl Sunday.
To be fair, I understand the appeal. With the budgets and amount of effort put into most Superbowl commercials, it's almost like watching a miniature TV show, and they can be extremely entertaining. However, the purpose of a commercial, no matter how grand in scale, is not to entertain, its purpose is to sell you something. Whether it's a text-only banner ad, or a TV commercial with a greater production effort and budget than a children's TV show, it's all the same, an attempt to use psychology against you to coerce you to purchase (or at least think about) their product. So, if you wouldn't go out of your way to visit a website or read a magazine you wouldn't ordinarily enjoy, for the purpose of consuming advertising, why would you watch a TV show you wouldn't ordinarily care about for that?
Some will say that if you don't buy the product/service advertised, the ad "didn't work" on you. On the surface, it's a logical-sounding argument, but having dabbled in entrepreneurship, and currently working in a field where marketing knowledge is an asset, that logic is flawed. The assumption is that the entire point of an advertisement, the end-all and be-all of its existence, is to get you to buy its product. And yes, that is the primary goal. However, it's far from the only goal, and in some cases (like most Superbowl commercials), it's not the intent at all. Influencing your thinking, and getting you to remember the company, is as important to a marketer. Becoming a household name is the holy grail of advertising (ever known someone who referred to all soda as "Coke"?), but even just staying on your mind is a huge victory for a company. Not only does it increase their overall recognition, and thus make it easier to sell to you in the future (humans are instinctively drawn to familiarity), but it increases the likelihood that their existence will spread from person-to-person.
For example, let's say you're watching the Superbowl, and a commercial you love comes on. You're not at all interested in their product, and you're certain the ad "didn't work" on you, but you thought the commercial was cool, so you tell all your friends about it on Twitter. Someone who didn't see the Superbowl reads your message, and they later go shopping for the sort of product that commercial was selling. They see the company's product, remember your tweet about its commercial, and now they're instinctively, subconsciously drawn to that product because, on some level, it's familiar. Congratulations, the ad has now "worked" on you, despite your belief that it didn't. This happens all the time, of course, any time a company produces a memorable commercial, and it's common knowledge to anyone who takes a Marketing 101 class. It's simply how human communication works. But must we embrace it so strongly?
I've always gone to great lengths to avoid subjecting myself to more advertising than absolutely necessary. I don't just mute video/TV commercials, I look away from the screen. My browser's adblock list is massive. I also realize I'm a minority on this, and I'm not going to advocate a blanket avoidance of all advertising. It's impossible to do in the US. However, I do feel strongly that if you have any level of objection to the proliferation of advertising in American society, you have an obligation to take reasonable steps to avoid it. Failing that, I at least feel that no sane human should actively seek out advertising as if it were on the same level as entertainment, no matter how entertaining the ads are. So, if you're not a football fan, please don't watch the Superbowl for its commercials. If enough people cut back on this ridiculous trend, it just might become less of an overblown advertising frenzy, and we'll all have just a little less commercialism in our lives. The football fans might even see a stronger focus on the game, too.