In search of a Canadian Super Bowl

Heroes & Villains' Emma Hancock on why commercials shared together are so much more powerful than just sharing commercials.
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By Emma Hancock

An ironic thing happens when you make an ad that’s only really intended to be seen once – people want to see it over and over again.

Every year, on the first Sunday of February, the Ad Gods bring us to laughter and tears over a big new batch of television ads. Most will be great, a few not so much, but the important thing is in a world of fragmentation we actually watch them all. Together. The Super Bowl is a giant, shiny collective. “It’s still the quickest way to catapult something high up into the national conversation,” explains Jeff Goodby, “I love the way we ALL know about the spot, good or bad, around the water cooler on Monday.”

This year I watched the Super Bowl in America and it was exhilarating. Seeing the ads live at a pub was just as exciting as watching the game. “There’s crowd mentality and a party atmosphere,” explains Caprice Yu, ECD at Sid Lee NYC, “It’s like being in a really fun, rowdy, and often harsh focus group fueled by buffalo wings.”

“The advertising is as talkworthy and shareworthy as a 50 yard completion,” adds Kyle Norrington, marketing director at Labatt Breweries of Canada.

Quite different than how the rest of the world sees Super Bowl ads – usually out of context and usually on a computer at the office. Sure the ads still resonate but that live collective viewership is powerful, and it’s what makes the marketing opportunity so rare.

After correspondence with Super Bowl vets Rob Baker, CD at the Richards Group (which created last year’s Dodge Ram “Farmer” spot) and David kolbusz, deputy ECD at BBH London, it becomes clear that the act of tuning-in together becomes part of this deep and meaningful tradition that is the Super Bowl, and it’s what makes the advertising opportunity that much grander. The context matters. Greatness by association.

“I believe it’s a marketing event for the bold above all. Big bucks, big audience, big exposure, big scrutiny, big feedback. Not for the weak of heart,” says Terry O’Reilly, host of CBC’s Under The Influence.

With such astronomical expectations and an audience so highly charged and connected, there is the opportunity to create something truly momentous. The first time I saw that was in 1979 (Super Bowl XIII), when McCann copywriter Penny Hawkey treated us to one of the best commercials ever. Who would have guessed that one of the most powerful moments we’d ever see with a 6’4″, 275 lb. defensive tackle would be sweet and charming and still really make you want to chug a Coke. (Check out the spot below.)

“I love storytelling, and working on Coca-Cola at that time was a bit frustrating as the work was generally jingles and vignettes. Happy teenagers drinking lots of Cokes against lots of California sunsets. We were asked to come up with something a bit different,” explains Hawkey when I spoke to her from her farm in Westchester County, New York, “Here was an opportunity to tell a 60-second story. And 60 seconds was enough time to create the heroes journey.

“The Super Bowl is a bizarre shared moment,” she continues. “Rather like those rare moments in a movie theatre or Broadway show where the laugh, shout or gasp is made greater in that it was a collective experience. It is infectious, instantly viral in no way the internet can ever accomplish.”

In advertising terms, creating a successful Super Bowl spot is the equivalent to achieving the American Dream.

“It’s the equivalent of winning a Lion except your mom and your friends know what it is. It’s still exciting to think that something you create will be seen by 99% of America,” explains Yu.

As our industry now basks in the afterglow of this year’s big game spots, as a Canadian I start to wonder what’s our “big game” and what’s our big shared viewing experience with jets and fireworks and half-time shows? Sure there’s the usual Canadian anecdotes I’m told, like “we’re so much smaller” and “there’s just not the same budgets,” but frankly those are excuses. We need to cultivate our own pride-filled yearly one-game event.

There needs to be a “Canadian Dream” for ad folk and unfortunately we can’t really count on the Stanley Cup – the last time the championship was only between Canadian teams was 1989 (yikes!).

We need a lasting, 100% Canadian championship and my money’s on the Grey Cup. It’s a football game with a guaranteed date and time that will always be a face-off between Canada’s best teams.

“What I like about the Super Bowl is that advertisers really use it as a vehicle to launch new products,” says CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, “The Grey Cup offers the same opportunity – it’s our party, our institution and our celebration. It’s authentically Canadian.”

Media expert David Cairns of Cairns O’Neil agrees, “Marketers in Toronto, influenced by what they see in New York or Miami, would be well served to understand the impact of Grey Cup on Regina, Saskatoon, Hamilton, Winnipeg…and Toronto.”

And okay, maybe the Grey Cup won’t bring in the same numbers as the Super Bowl. But, if the industry got behind one big event, we too would have a “big game” to make big ads for.

We know that the CFL has bigger balls (literally) than the NFL. Maybe its time the Canadian ad industry showed that we can have bigger balls too. Just sayin’.

Emma Hancock is a founding partner of Toronto-based Heroes & Villains Advertising. After 15 years of diligently crafting campaigns, she’s become a strong believer in the power of storytelling and its ability to turn brands into heroes.