This morning, David Schmader wrote about the time that he and I went to Chalk Talk to listen to local advertising professionals do an autopsy on this year's Super Bowl ads. I share Schmader's fascination with television advertising. More money is poured into a single Super Bowl commercial on a second-by-second basis than we'll ever see spent on any Hollywood blockbuster. It's a game of entertainment and information, and managing to find some sort of a dance between the two.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed myself at this thing. (And I didn't even have the added bonus of getting whupped at beer pong beforehand.) Most of the panel was profoundly interested in storytelling, and they kept asking questions about how well the story was told. That is absolutely something that I can relate to, and it made the proceedings very much like a lightning round of film criticism. (Although it must be said that the panel was basically a wall of white dudes, which was pretty disappointing, especially when they all got straight-bro-uncomfortable when trying to discuss Calvin Klein's machine ad:
There were plenty of women and a decent-sized sampling of minorities in the audience—it is Seattle, after all—so the panel didn't seem to represent the advertising industry demographics as a whole.)
In the opening remarks, someone referred to the 2013 Super Bowl as "the year of the chaos commercial," in which as many story elements, disparate concepts, and jokes were stuffed into the runtime as possible. Some of the results were great—that Oreo commercial Schmader linked to was funny as hell—but most of them were flops, like Beck's what-the-fuck Sapphire commercial. In the end, everyone seemed to agree that the winners were Dodge's God Made a Farmer and Budweiser's horse-fucking commercial, although everyone agreed that Oreo's impromptu tweet that took advantage of the blackout was "the real game-changer," and that ad agencies would probably have staffs of people on call during the game next year to come up with immediate ways to respond to unique events via Twitter and Facebook. I feel as though this might be the result of every one of these conferences: People like ads that tell stories—a few of the panelists said they hoped this year's Super Bowl ads would inspire "a return to storytelling" in the ad business, which is something that I bet gets said in every Hollywood meeting, too—but they like ads that are snappy and immediate, too.
While Schmader found the whole "second screen" discussion to be fascinating, I was a little tired of it by the end of the presentation.
Advertisers want to control the way people use their tablets and phones as they watch events, and I just don't think they'll ever be able to do that. Nobody scans QR codes to "learn more" from an ad. Nobody goes to the sites hyped at the end of an ad. Nobody wants to engage more with an ad, unless there's a coupon or a discount involved. (That's not new; people fucking love discounts and always will. Phones and tablets make that chase for the discount more immediate, but it's not going to make bargain hunters any more engaged than it ever has. This is not new ground.)
The second screen is there, for the most part, so people can share an experience with friends. Advertisers can surf on that wave of community by being clever and becoming a part of the conversation, but I don't think they will be able to drive significant numbers of people to promote their brands outside of that. All the talk about second screens feels like trend-chasing to me, the kind of thing that will embarrass the fuck out of the panelists when they see video of Chalk Talk one day ten years from now. "People are there [on Twitter and Facebook] and ready to do stuff for us" and the brands they represent, one of the panelists said, and that might be true. People will forward a funny ad around. But advertisers always chase that little extra push, that need to get inside the consumer's head on a more meaningful level, and technology doesn't, as a rule, make that easier. You're not plumbing the depths of involvement just because someone is watching TV with a phone or a tablet, you're pushing shallow water around.