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Lessons From Super Bowl Ads: Know Your Audience

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I spend a lot effort trying to figure out what works. That is to say, how to reach people more effectively. I'm in the business of communicating, of helping people market their ideas. So I need to know what speaks to people.

You'd be shocked at how many marketers don't seem to be aware of what people respond to.

You saw the Super Bowl, probably -- you and 110 million of your closest friends. And you probably noticed the commercials -- they're as much a part of the Super Bowl experience as is the game itself.

But as my friend and colleague Bob Hughes pointed out -- as did advertising columnist Stuart Elliott of The New York Times -- the ads seemed aimed at an earlier era than the one we're currently living through.

What gives? These commercials are costly to produce and the Super Bowl slots are expensive to buy. Are advertisers so shaken by the money they need to dole out that they can't see the world around them, the world of today?

It's not like our current frame of mind arrived yesterday. We're living in what I call a "we" cycle. This is a term that my co-author Roy H. Williams and I came up with in our book Pendulum, which explores the profound societal shifts that occur every 40 years or so, when people's ways of looking at the world, and judging what's important to them, change. Our current cycle began a decade ago, following a 40-year "me" cycle that started in 1963.

In a "we" cycle, we respond to -- get this -- reality. In a "me" cycle we're actually swayed by hype. We're in an age now when we want real, raw and relevant. Less hero-worship, more small actions for the common good.

That wasn't in evidence much during the Super Bowl. The event itself was exciting. And nothing is more real than the actual blackout that delayed the game.

But I wish that marketers had thought more creatively about what would appeal to audiences. This is the biggest live event of the year in the United States, one that groups of people actually watch together without zipping through the commercials. But sometimes the fear of not making a big splash can lead to a sort of analysis paralysis, when creative types second-guess themselves and fall back on old clichés.

Oh, well. There's always next year. In the meantime, I urge you to look around you and see what works for you, in terms of marketing and messaging. Chances are if you respond positively, then the message speaks to you today. Not to you as you were 15 years ago.