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Rob Asghar Headshot

Super Bowl Ads and the Mad Men's $150 Billion Con Job

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The countdown continues to Super Bowl Sunday, when Americans choose to celebrate advertising with unusual zeal. Yet no rational, empirical evidence suggests that the $2 billion spent on Super Bowl advertising over the past two decades, or the $150 billion spent annually on advertising in the United States, is an overall economic boon.

On the other hand, plenty of rational evidence exists that advertising works against the interests of Joe Sixpack and the Anheuser Busch executives who woo him each year on Super Sunday.

Advertising apologists say the public actively watches Super Bowl ads that they'd ordinarily ignore. That makes it the rare exception that proves the general rule that commercials lack value. That may be why GM isn't advertising this year. Its reps say it's not appropriate to advertise in light of cutbacks and bailouts. But if advertising worked, it wouldn't just be appropriate, it'd be essential.

The Mad Man's most ironic and audacious form of hucksterism is when he tells such companies, "The average consumer is blinded and deafened by 3,225 messages each day, so you need me to help you break through that clutter."

Huh? Dear Mad Man, you are the reason that the clutter exists in the first place. And you can do nothing except add to the clutter.

Various media expert and "new marketing" types have examined in great detail how mass advertising is a cruel joke played by ad execs on corporate suckers. It was Joe Jaffe, for example, who noted that the explosion of commercial messages has reduced TV viewers' ability to recall even one name brand advertised the night before, from a "whopping" 34 percent in 1965 to a pathetic 9 percent in 2000, before the advent of TiVo have reduced the figure still further.

Every American decided long ago how they feel about Budweiser, based on years of research as underage drinkers. How many funny or touching commercials could change that? Perhaps that's why Anheuser-Bush, the perennial top Super Bowl advertiser, is putting its famous Clydesdales out to pasture. As the New York Times notes, "The horses have appeared in some of the best-liked, most-recalled Super Bowl commercials." But the company apparently is realizing that pretty horses and well-liked commercials don't sell beer.

George Clooney may charm people, but the visible placement of American Airlines all over his stellar "Up in the Air" film has done nothing for that company's stock. Perhaps it's [SPOILER ALERT!] because the movie de-romanticizes his character's love of flying and reduces his attainment of ultimate frequent-flyer status to a weak consolation prize.

But the fixation on advertising, especially mass advertising, is so powerful that no one examines or ponders the results. I liken the Mad Men crowd to religious fanatics who claim that Fanaticity is the only faith that makes people better. If you point out their own glaring weaknesses, they say, "Oh, but you should have seen how bad I was before I joined Fanaticism!" In the same way, you can never get an ad agency to admit that their commercials are ineffective, because it's an article of fanatical faith that you would do even worse without their ingenious commercials.

They and their clients neglect that Starbucks and Krispy Kreme were able to build global brands without advertising -- or that General Motors is a flop despite advertising more than most anyone.

Still, I'm less concerned about advertising's effect on the welfare of the corporations than on the consumers and our overall society.

Neil Postman, the wisest and most prescient social critic of the 20th century, bemoaned the televised parables of "The Ring Around the Collar," whereby lasting happiness could be attained simply by switching to Wisk. I'm less concerned that brainwashing is going on. I'm more convinced that brain-wasting is going on. In our information-soaked era, we can't squander brain cells on this crap. A society is at stake.

Consumers are naïve in assuming that advertising "makes things cheaper" than they otherwise would be. Yes, Macy's ads in the New York Times make the Times cheaper than it otherwise would be. But hello, dear consumer -- Macy's will charge the cost back to you. Like when you go to Vegas, you cannot come out ahead. Corporations do not advertise out of charity. They have Madmen and media outlets to pay, and they will charge you.

Are there better ways for corporations and consumers to interact? Yes. Here are just three possibilities:

1. Expanded subscriptions for content that make most advertising unnecessary.

Consumers seem to find micro subscriptions annoying. But most of us happily pay cable or satellite subscriptions, and we'd rather default on our mortgage than have the cable turned off. The cable cost itself is subsidized by ads, but that only helps the cable company, because -- again -- that cost is passed back to us by Ford and Safeway and Coca-Cola.

If we pay the appropriate price for blanket radio and TV and news subscription and demand that the commercials top, we don't have to TiVo our way through programs, we don't have to station surf while waiting for our favorite shock-jock to return from a "short" seven-minute break.

2. Designated advertising venues.
Amazon and QVC already serve such roles, to a degree. I recognize that some people like a certain amount of advertising as a distraction or amusement. But for the benefit of the consumer and the corporation alike, there needs to be a better sifting of which consumer wants to wade through ads and which one is impatiently trying to get straight to her favorite TV show, newspaper article or web page. Much of the waste in advertising involves advertisers not being able to outwit the latter group.

If you like flipping through the ads of magazines, urge someone to create a slick magazine filled with ads. That will help keep the rest of us from digging slowly through 60 pages of ads before we can find the table of contents for Vanity Fair.

Subscriptions that are unsubsidized by advertising will help reveal what we value. Journalists lament how consumers "no longer" are willing to fund good investigative journalism. But as just noted, that fine institution was always buoyed by countless pages of bra ads (which may or may not have sold more bras than would have been sold through other means). Let's gamble that a public that shuns mindless mass advertising may become sophisticated enough to fund investigative journalism, by actively subscribing to it than by passively letting the bra salesmen pay for it.

3. Joining the conversation.
The Age of Information Overload involves women and men who are both exhausted by generic messages and who are remarkably sophisticated at finding the real scoop on that car, that musician, that smartphone that's struck their fancy. Corporations thus need to get into real discussions about what consumers are looking for. Toyota has a massive image problem on its hand, and exorbitant commercials and time purchases will not help. A conversation about changes in its system will help, provided they tell the public the right things in a credible way. It would represent bad news for the Mad Men, but good news for society.

Advertising is an insult to our intelligence in the 21st century -- a richly deserved insult, granted, but an insult nonetheless. And a democratic society that aspires to inspire the world through our wise and free choice needs to grow beyond it.

Rob Asghar, a Fellow within the USC Annenberg School of Communication's Center on Public Diplomacy, is the author of the newly released Lessons from the Holy Wars. Thank you for tolerating the irony of this brazen pitch.