February 5, 2013

When did the Super Bowl become about everything but the game?

After reviewing the ads from Super Bowl '85, it struck me how subdued they were, compared to a random sample of '80s commercials. It's as though they were trying to not take you out of the game itself. Today the relationship between ad and program has become inverted: everybody is on the edge of their seat for the commercials, and annoyance sets in when that stupid game interrupts them yet again.

When did this shift in focus occur? Here is a graph showing how common the phrase "Super Bowl ads" has been across time among the books in Google's digitized library. The graph looks the same when similar phrases are used ("commercials" or "advertisements" instead of "ads", and "ads / etc. during the Super Bowl" instead of "Super Bowl ads"). "Super Bowl ads" is the most common way that the topic shows up, though.

They start attracting attention in the early-to-mid-'90s and have taken off since then. I searched the New York Times for these phrases to see what they were saying about them. The occasional mention that they received pre-'90s was to emphasize how expensive they were, not that they were an entertainment draw in themselves. Only in the '90s and after did they start talking about their content.

In an earlier post on Super Bowl national anthem performances, I reviewed how they changed from normal to exaggerated. The turning point seems to have been 1991, when Whitney Houston pre-recorded an over-the-top rendition, and it only got more diva-like after that. By now there is so much warbling around the melodic line ("melisma"), or such a slow, drawn-out tempo (it should take a little over a minute, not two and a half), that the song gets lost. Because it has become a showcase of uniqueness, the players and the audience in the stadium and at home cannot possibly sing along. It is no longer sung to bind the listeners together and get them pumped up, but to serve as an entertainment spectacle in itself.

Finally, there is the halftime show. In the good old days, the performers were not current stars (or even old stars, most of the time), and they were not there to promote themselves. Rather, it was usually a marching band, in keeping with football tradition. And there was an over-arching theme that celebrated something outside of and larger than the performers -- a salute to the Big Band era, Mardi Gras, etc.

Looking over the list of Super Bowl halftime shows, there are two shifts away from tradition. The first is the replacement of marching bands, or the odd oldies star, by current mega-sellers. That began in 1991, when New Kids on the Block took center stage. Then there was the removal of larger themes from the set list, and making it all about the performers themselves, which began in 2005.

Here's a graph showing how common the phrase "Super Bowl halftime" has been (adding "show" gives the same result):

There are isolated years where it was talked about in the earlier history, but it's not until 1989 that it receives regular discussion.

Putting all of these changes together, it looks like the early-mid-'90s saw the decisive break away from the Super Bowl as national sports ritual to the Super Bowl as insipid pop culture overload. No wonder the last one I remember was Super Bowl '90 (after that the names of the star players are only vaguely familiar). It became impossible to stay locked in to the game itself, and I'm not enough of a football fan to suffer through all the junk just to see who wins.

This is worth keeping in mind when you hear about viewership records -- those viewers are not talking about the game the day after, but girls talking about how fierce Beyonce looked, and guys talking about which commercials were dumber than which others.


  1. Looking at your graphs, by far the largest shift didn't happen until the turn of the century. The 90's - really the late 90's - only augured the 2000's glorification of Superbowl commercials and halftime shows at the expense of the game.

  2. We have to look at when it began growing to try to explain it or link it to other changes, though. It's like genetic selection -- it rises slowly at first, then rapidly -- but that doesn't mean that the selection pressure began once it was in its sky-rocketing phase. It was there once it began rising.

  3. Seems like the years pre 1998 that focused entirely on the "acts" were the years produced by Disney, MTV, or Pepsi/Coca Cola. Once 1998 hits the half time show is largely the production of the music industry. Michner, MTV, etc.

  4. Watching the Super Bowl, I was struck by a Budweiser ad for one of their upscale beers. It featured young, attractive and (presumably) wealthy adults at a toney gathering. I asked aloud, "Hey, remember when beer ads had Bob Uecker and Rodney Dangerfield clowning around in a bar?"

  5. Yeah I saw that one, taking its Affordable Luxury appeal so seriously. Back in the '80s people had a better sense of humor about status-striving in their beer ads:

    Spuds Lifestyle ad

  6. "Hey, remember when beer ads had Bob Uecker and Rodney Dangerfield clowning around in a bar?"

    I used to tell my high school students that I remembered a time when beer was sold as a cold, refreshing beverage (which it is), with nary a link to mating games and fast times.

    You're too young, Ag, but maybe a few readers recall that on a Saturday afternoon in the heat of the summer, when only one network carried a nationally televised baseball "game of the week" (late 50s, maybe early 60s too), Hamm's Beer ran ads during that Saturday baseball game: their "mascot," a plump, cute cartoon bear floated on his back on a cool mountain lake drumming his tummy while the catchy jingle sang, "Hamms....the beer that refreshes.....da da da da!"

    That's it. Just a reminder that a cold ale on a hot day would refresh.

    Once a year my dad, upon hearing the ad, would ask my mother to look at the supermarket to see if they "Had gotten any of those pony 6 packs in yet."

    She would, and if they had, she'd buy one. Dad would have maybe three (pony cans, that is) over the course of the entire summer. after he had mowed the front lawn and was wiping his brow sitting on the porch stoop. By the middle of fall, my mother would ask if she could throw out the remaining cans to make room in the fridge. "Yeah," he'd say. "Go ahead."

    Marketing has come a long way, unfortunately.


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