MoveOn from the national discourse via Super Bowl ads

Election 2004 | Familiarity
An open letter to Eli and the team…

I think I missed the airing of your “Child’s Pay” ad. Here’s what I read when the winner was announced on January 12: “The selected winner’s ad will be broadcast nationwide Jan. 17 – 21, coinciding with the President’s State of the Union message.”

Sure, I saw it on the Internet, but when will it air? Now the big word– emailed halfway around the world– is that the MoveOn folks are gunning for the whole enchilada, a coveted $2M spot during this Sunday’s Super Bowl. CBS declined to accept your money, and now MoveOn is cheaply crying censorship.

But just one question first. Why bother with the Super Bowl ad at all?

True, people watch the big game for the big commercials. But that doesn’t mean that people watch the commercials for messages. Remember the hamster gun? The guy with “money coming out of the wazoo”? What were those commercials ever for? Was it Priceline that commercials? Who can remember?

Let’s face it. The two-million-dollar Super Bowl ad may be the biggest sucker bet in advertising. The ones who do well are the reliable sponsor like Pepsi-Cola and Budweiser– they have created a special franchise with a clever contribution each year. We wait for the ad, we see the ad, we celebrate the ad the next day. It’s all in the same spirit of the NFL enteprise. Once every XIX games or so, you get a commercial which smashes the paradigm, of advertising and product (famously with the Apple Macintosh in 1984). But like those hamsters fired out of a cannon, provocative statements may simply turn up dead on arrival.

In fact, a Super Bowl ad for MoveOn would surely backfire. Given all the inflated Patriotism surrounding this national holiday (think— consider the name of the team representing New England), this sober ad would be a party-pooper. Bundle that with the PETA ad, and you’ll get a bunch of getting-drunk people throwing chicken wings at the TV. MoveOn may be striving for mainstream acceptance, but risks it greatly by associating with a group most Americans see as a radical fringe group, PETA (who have never had any shame in encouraging teenagers to drink beer instead of milk, or in comparing factory farming to the Holocaust).

Perhaps the thinking was that the ad need only once, and what better time than the Super Bowl? The most influential campaign ad ever, the 1964 “Daisy” anti-Goldwater ad was officially aired once, but then replayed on all of the news networks. MoveOn produced a new “daisy” last year (with the message of letting the Iraq inspections continue), even airing it in the DC market duringthe Super Bowl. Not that it acheived its goals: Bush, and the majority, ignored it. Given all the one-shot statements proferred at Super Bowl, can it really have the impact everyone is expecting? Somehow the 1964 “Daisy” was a stealth genius that crept into everyone’s subconscious. The 2004 “Child’s Pay” may work as well if it wasn’t hyped into being the end-all-and-be-all.

I suggest that the money would be better spent airing the ad multiple times. Airing the ad after the State of the Union would have been perfect. It would have directly undercut the President’s unreal budget expectations. It would have been nicely followed on Monday by the Congressional Budget Office’s new projection of deficits far into the future. Here’s another idea: approach the three U.S. evenings news shows. My guess is that you’d want to air a commercial about America’s children just when America is sitting down to dinner with their children. If the all of the TV networks spurn you, then you’d have a right to claim censorship.

Meanwhile, go Patriots. We’ll have another party for Bob Kraft’s superb team… and then, like the Bush administration, we’ll figure out how to clean up and pay for it afterwards.

Postscript: Feb. 23: The Times ran an article in Sunday’s Week In Review section, In Politics, the Web Is a Parallel World With Its Own Rules:

For one, a Web ad, unlike a television commercial, does not fall under new election rules requiring candidates to appear in their own advertisements to voice approval of them. By not having to take direct responsibility for his anti-Kerry spot, Mr. Bush got some distance from it — even though it is on his Web site.

But perhaps most significantly, the Web has evolved as a relatively permissive environment. A negative advertisement that might rub viewers the wrong way in their living rooms is apparently less likely to do so when they are at their computers.

This seems to corroberate my point about the Super Bowl being the wrong place to air the ad. See also my follow-up piece on the Super Bowl.