The 5-Hour Super Bowl Ad, or, the Event in the Age of YouTube

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Before you watch the Super Bowl tonight, you could, should you be so inclined, head over to YouTube and watch a preview of an ad Kia will be airing during the game. The spot features the Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima wearing very little and doing even less: She spends the entirety of the ad, hilariously and (one presumes) at least partially satirically, swaying, saying nothing, and waving a checkered racing flag. Very, very slowly.

The ad -- the "tease," as it were, of what we'll see tonight -- is five hours long

Five. Hours. Long.

Super Bowl commercials (the experience of, the economics of, etc.) used to be pretty straightforward: Advertisers would gladly pay tons of money for a slot during the game's broadcast because an ad aired during the game's broadcast was an amazingly efficient way of getting a message out to tons of people. That's still the case -- a 30-second space is going, this year, for $3.5 million, up from $3 million last year -- but the mechanics of the messaging are changing, and rapidly. Super Bowl ads are no longer simply ads, in the Traditional Teevee sense; they're campaigns that play out, strategically, over time. Instead of functioning as commercial broadcasts unto themselves, they're acting more and more like episodic touchpoints for an expansive cultural conversation.

In that context, Kia's five hours' worth of semi-satiric substi-porn aren't actually that -- that -- unusual. Many of the other ads that will air during the game tonight won't be airing for the first time, either. They'll have made their debuts already ... on the Internet. Volkswagen's Super Bowl spot has already been posted to YouTube, where it has garnered over 3 million views. Chevy's? More than 1 million views. Honda's, starring a re-Bueller-ized Matthew Broderick? Over 11 million. 

In part, that's about marketers racing each other for relevance in an environment where marketing messages no longer need to be confined to TV. But it's a bigger story, too -- of communications, overall, breaking free of the boxes that used to contain them. One function of the media, traditionally, has been the regulation not just of information, and not just of entertainment, but of time itself. Our broadcast networks, in particular, have segmented time into neat little boxes -- 30 seconds here, 30 minutes there -- and populated them with sounds and images that entertain and (occasionally) edify us. They have plotted our days into grids, scheduling our experience and helping us to forget that, in fact, there's very little that's natural about a time slot. 

Super Bowl ads have been pretty much the Platonic culmination of the gridded media system. They have operated on the assumption that a Big Event itself (the experience of, the economics of) is significant not just because of its content, but because of the community it convenes (111 million people!). The Super Bowl is time rendered collective and contained -- so of course marketers want to buy themselves a chunk of it. When better to make your pitch to the world than during the period when the maximum amount of eyes are focused on, effectively, the same screen? 

***

YouTube, and social networks in general, encourage precisely the opposite marketing model. Rather than containing consumer attention, they disperse it. They take the typical 30-second ad spot and condense it to five seconds ... or expand it to five hours. Or both. Or neither. It doesn't matter, because digital spaces remove time as both a constraint and a value in commercial production, allowing for marketing that insinuates itself on its intended audiences much more slowly, and much more manipulatively, and potentially much more effectively, than its analog counterparts. 

You'd think all that would be bad news for broadcast networks, with marketers trading YouTube for boob tube and abandoning the pricey Super Bowl altogether. Why buy the milk, and all that. But: Not only are marketers continuing to pay for something they could ostensibly get for free; they're paying more for it than they ever have before. They're still finding value -- millions of dollars worth of it -- in the connective consciousness that the Super Bowl represents. 

And that's because, in a world of atomized attention, anything that can aggregate us is becoming more valuable than it's ever been before. Ads aired during the Super Bowl aren't just ads; they're Super Bowl ads. That branding will give them a spot -- and a continued life -- in Monday's write-ups of Sunday's best Super Bowl spots, and in all those "Super Bowl Ads: 2012" collections that will function as archives for future generations. Their context will make them more than what they are. And that will make them, implicitly, more engaging than they might be otherwise. Super Bowl ads, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann has pointed out, have been found to be 58 percent more memorable than regular ads. And while that's partly, sure, because those ads generally represent the best stuff that J. Walter and friends have to offer, it's also because the ads, aired when they are, adopt the warmth of assumed connection that convened attention can confer. I am watching Matthew Broderick as 110,999,999 other people do. There is something epic -- and rare -- about that.

So Super Bowl ads are increasingly valuable because the kind of mass-conscious event they're part of is increasingly rare. Mass-ness itself is increasingly rare. Overall, in the U.S., TV viewership is declining. Audiences are fragmenting. The Gladwellian connectors that used to bring us together -- LucyJ.R.Oscar -- are departing, leaving individual impulse as the driver of our time. This is wonderful, and liberating, but introduces its own set of quandaries. TV Guide, after all, wasn't just a guide book; it was a framework. It was a power structure. It assembled us, effortlessly, within its neat little boxes. By limiting our experience, it also connected our experience. 

No longer. Increasingly, we're looking to social networks rather than TV networks for our entertainment, for our information, for our sense of the world. And those social networks are fluid and box-less and limitless in a way that traditional media never could be. What happens to events themselves -- those shared moments of cultural connection -- in a world where time is unconstrained? Is a Super Bowl ad really a Super Bowl ad when I can watch it long before kickoff? 


Image: Kia/YouTube.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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