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The Super Bowl and Social Media Advertising

Super Bowl XLVII had a tough team to beat. Its predecessor, XLVI, captivated 111.3 million Americans with a rating of 47.8—meaning 47.8 percent of households watching television that night tuned in. XLVII scored 48.1, a new Super Bowl record. Sure, that 48.1 figured out to a mere 108.3 million viewers. But who’s counting. [Numbers courtesy Forbes.] Analysts had predicted the decline in total viewership, which turned out to be minimal. For all practical purposes though, XLVII was as popular as XLVI. With Beyonce and a freak power outage, that is. Nevertheless, XLVII proved that the sports media event, broadcasted across traditional channels, has maintained its status as commercial advertising juggernaut.

But how successfully did advertisers capture or engage with social media audiences? Over the course of the evening, the Super Bowl inspired 24.1 million tweets, with a peak of 268,000 tweets per minute at the end of the halftime show. The precise content of the tweet en masse is difficult to describe, but I think “color commentary” is a fair approximation. At the risk of leaning heavily on an analog cliche, the “peanut gallery” used social media to express criticism, praise, snark, and delight. Rarely did Twitter devolve into a stream of “commercial commentary,” even when the subjects of conversation were commercials themselves. Advertisers failed to inspire a level of deep engagement with their products.

According to the logic of television advertising, deep engagement with the product is a no-no. Consumers should ponder the goods at hand, make considered decisions, debate the merits of competitors; commercials should inspire a feeling, a desire (perhaps not for the product itself, but for the values that the product entails)—nothing more. Yet social media advertising is a different story, because digital consumers expect a degree of interactivity. Television is, by nature, a passive medium. The viewer receives the information beamed down from above. Twitter is, by nature, an active medium. The user broadcasts information back to the powers that be.

During the Super Bowl, advertisers had the opportunity to make visible and explicit the new relationship between television spots and social media conversations. Unfortunately, there is a prevailing line of thought about “how to make money from social media.” The paradigm of social media monetization returns the user from active user to unwitting, passive recipient of commercial data. For old-school advertisers, it’s all well and good for Twitter users to believe themselves participants in a dialogue about television advertisements, or even to participate in trending conversations about products. As long as users are confined to “the message,” they remain tools of the advertiser.

Advertisers are unwilling to facilitate a change of purpose: a switch from the user as receptacle and vehicle of advertising slogan to independent brand ambassador. Such reluctance follows from the fear that necessitates advertising in the first place, a paranoia (possibly true) that one’s product just isn’t that good. Thus the need for distraction and deception, because if one’s product was the best, in a perfect competition against lesser foes there would be no risk of failure. The “Twitter account as independent brand ambassador” demands an impossible level of trust between consumer and advertiser. The latter assumes that loyalty is, paradoxically capricious; that no one will remain a brand ambassador of their own will forever. Indeed, I find my own product loyalties shifting when I deliberate the merits of competitors. Why should I advocate for one product once I have changed my mind and think another to be superior? What is the incentive?  

Advertisers recognize the perils of social media strategies that rely upon the independence and free choice of the consumer. Traditionally, advertising has depended upon the illusion of independence and free choice. How could that illusion be replaced by something real? More importantly, why would an advertiser risk everything on the whims of a consumer when those whims can be manipulated? At least for now, social media advertising cannot replicate the success of its television forebears. It is not so easy to manipulate collectives of consumers communicating across digital space. Therefore, we face an arms race between savvy consumer advocates and their advertising enemies. For the consumer, the launch of stronger and faster response systems against bad products. For the advertiser, the development of better strategies for the manipulation of social media. What’s your bet?