The Painful Paradox Of Facebook Advertising Vs. Super Bowl Advertising

There’s a delectable irony in the fact that Facebook’s IPO was announced the same week as the Super Bowl. While they are both the subject of obsessive media attention, they actually represent two radically different versions of the future of branding and advertising.


There’s a delectable irony in the fact that Facebook’s IPO was announced the same week as the Super Bowl. While they are both the subject of obsessive media attention, they actually represent two radically different versions of the future of branding and advertising.    

The Super Bowl is advertising as the largest common denominator; the commercials created for it strive to be all things to all people. Facebook–and Google as well–are algorithmic engines that deliver the highest personal denominator. Their goal is to be one thing to one person. Think of it as the difference between storming your way into someone’s life, and worming your way in.

The Super Bowl works; some studies have shown that the commercials that run in the game have an ROI that’s as much as 250 times higher than conventional spots. Facebook and Google work, too; every click is trackable and the ROI of every ad unit can be computed to an atomic level.

But few advertisers can afford a Super Bowl spot, of course, and digital platforms are limited in what they can accomplish. Facebook has built an enormously valuable brand for itself. As has Google. But they can’t create enduring asset value for car manufacturers or soup brands or companies that make replacement windows and leaf blowers. They can move boxes, not minds.

No wonder there’s a lot of confusion and self-doubt in the industry about what falls in between. Conventional TV, radio, and print advertising are losing their effectiveness in an era of fragmented audiences, cratering attention spans, and the power of social media to identify and disseminate peer recommendations.

Super Bowl advertising is different than the norm because it’s a high-octane media event, a bloodthirsty competition that has a life before, during, and after the game. The commercials are obsessively engineered to motivate and connect with the broadest audience possible. They use archetypal narratives that transcend demographics and even psychographics, to deliver brand wallops that hack into our limbic systems


The anthemic Chrysler spot we saw last night is a perfect example. It used the technique of “framing” with brilliant finesse, tapping into our existing reference systems to trigger associations of resiliency, patriotism, comebacks, and shared struggle.

In another way, last year’s VW spot “The Force” tapped into other deep neural networks. It’s a fairy-tale story of a benevolent parent enabling childhood fantasy thinking. Both Chrysler and VW are messages loaded with emotional triggers for everyone. They provide no rational reason to buy. The cortex takes a day off. It’s worth $3.5 million or more for a single 30-second spot that works its subterranean magic in this way.  

It’s also worth paying tiny little sums to advertise with incessant frequency and drone-like precision on Facebook and Google. For entirely different reasons. Super Bowl advertising screams “pay attention to me,” while digital counterparts are intended to work with stealthy relevance.

Facebook makes money by analyzing its users’ social graph, their friends, their behaviors, and then sending appropriately targeted advertising their way. Google–the largest media company in the world, with a market cap of nearly $200 billion–works similarly. Google doesn’t attempt to create brands or change perceptions or move the emotional needle. It delivers ads that have surgical relevancy, because they are based on incredibly sophisticated data collection.

While Super Bowl commercials strive to be loud and visible, pitches on Facebook and Google don’t want to be seen as “advertising.” They want to disappear into the aesthetics of the site and be seen as content. Not advertising content, moreover, but as close to “editorial content” as the FTC and other regulators will allow.

This dichotomy between algorithm and aspiration embodies the complexity of marketing today. Audiences are fragmented, and the recommendations of friends and the ascendency of social media have smashed the hegemony of the 30-second spot. The Super Bowl is a reminder–a monumental one–of the role advertising used to play. It’s a museum of advertising as it was, not as it will be.


Yet CEOs and CMOs know that while the micro-targeting abilities and Big Data richness of Google and Facebook can match a consumer in Seattle who collects 1950s Japanese robots with a dealer in Brooklyn, those platforms cannot scale to an emotional connection. 

The future will likely be a chaotic hybrid, where marketers who aren’t in the 1% and lack Super Bowl-sized budgets will struggle to meaningfully influence consumers. They’ll do their best with an ever-shifting prism of traditional advertising, digital marketing, branded content, events, and new forms of disruptive engagement.  

But it won’t be easy. Just as the middle class is increasingly future-less in the American economy, consumer brands stuck in the middle face the same problems of survival.  

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[Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

About the author

Adam is a brand strategist--he runs Hanft Projects, a NYC-based firm--and is a frequently-published marketing authority and cultural critic. He sits on the Board of Scotts Miracle-Gro, and has consulted for companies that include Microsoft, McKinsey, Fidelity and, as well as many early and mid-stage digital companies.