Ahead of the Super Bowl LVII, Faris Yakob explores the phenomenon of the event and the opportunities and constraints that the biggest stage in the world's biggest advertising market offers to brands.

The defining story of the last few decades in advertising has been about adapting to fragmentation. Various digital technologies increased the overall amount of bandwidth available in media, creating new channels, on television and everywhere else. This challenged the primary function of advertising, which is to make things famous. 

During the prior age of true mass media the limited bandwidth meant that advertisers could reach most of the population with a limited number of placements. As media fragmented across innumerable new options, culture fragmented alongside, with different versions of reality being reflected to different groups. Famous used to mean famous to everyone or close enough to have a reasonable expectation that others will also know whom or what you are talking about but today fame also inhabits media and culture niches that are invisible beyond them. All life’s a stage for brands as well as people because everything communicates but the communal stages they can buy access to keep getting smaller. 

The Super Bowl is a culturally created anomaly. American football is uniquely structured to allow for a vast number of ad breaks, stretching the game to four hours, and that advertising has become entwined with the event itself. In 2010, Nielsen reported that 51% of Super Bowl viewers enjoyed the commercials more than the game. It is the biggest stage in the world’s biggest market and brands spend ever increasing amounts to reach that deep across so many audiences. It is regularly the most viewed television program in the USA. This is less surprising when one considers that the NFL accounted for 82 of the 100 most-watched U.S. TV broadcasts in 2022 [Nielsen]. Broadcast television is heavily dependent on the impetus for live viewing that games bring. The media costs are matched by generous production budgets and cunning strategies as brands attempt to stand out on the crowded proscenium. 

Some brands attempt to be distinctive by tightening their resonance with the event itself. This year will be the 57th Super Bowl and Heinz is making a bid for even more salience for its category-defining ketchup by campaigning to get rid of Roman numerals, which designate the game LVII. Apparently last year people were vocal on social about their inability to decode such cyphers. The connective tissue here is that the number 57 appears on the Heinz label:

“As the ketchup who has proudly repped 57 on our label for over 100 years, we’re here to clear up the confusion - LVII Meanz 57. We can say that. Because the number 57 is a Heinz trademark - seriously.” 

The accompanying video demonstrates that people on the street cannot read Roman numerals and that you can more easily remember what Super Bowl number it is by remembering Heinz Ketchup as a branded mnemonic. 

Despite promising to clear up the confusion, at no point does the campaign explain why there is a 57 on the Heinz label, which is a shame because it’s hilarious. Whilst one might reasonably think it might denote the amount of varieties the company sells, even when it launched they made at least 60, primarily pickled, products. Rather, Henry Heinz saw an ad on the New York subway for a shoe store that boasted “21 styles” and was inspired to make a similar proposition. He picked the number 57 seemingly at random although he later claimed he chose "5" because it was his lucky number and the number "7" was his wife's lucky number. Then again, he also apparently said that the number "7" was selected specifically because of the "psychological influence of that figure and of its enduring significance to people of all ages” that “58 Varieties or 59 Varieties did not appeal at all to me as being equally strong”, which is some ingenious reverse-engineered strategic planning. 

Other brands are also playing fast and loose with their heritage. M&Ms announced they were retiring their iconic candy mascots in response to the internet backlash to a set of progressive new entrants to the roster and replacing them indefinitely with Maya Rudolph. Interestingly, this instinct was present from the inception of the last set of icons. Susan Credle, currently the global chief creative officer of FCB, was handed the account at BBDO in 1995 with two existing “sickly sweet characters”. 

Her first instinct was to change direction. “As we started talking about the brand, I knew I had to be honest. "We should kill the characters," I said with conviction. "M&M's is a quintessential, beautiful product. It deserves better." When gently informed by the client that this was not going to happen, the constraints led to the creation of an ensemble cast that allowed for extensive merchandizing opportunities. A few years later the M&M's store opened in Times Square and the CEO confirmed to the creative that they were now in the toy business. 

Cynically minded observers may note the timing of this “retirement announcement” (or indeed put the phrase itself in air quotes). Smart marketers might consider the investments in supply chains and retail stores, not to mention the global brand equity the mascots have built over decades in an ever more fragmented media landscape. Let’s not forget it was only a few years ago that Mr. Peanut died before being miraculously resurrected as a baby during the Super Bowl. Said learned marketers will look forward to the M&M icons, like legendary quarterback Tom Brady, ‘unretiring’ for another big game. [GO CHIEFS!]