The Technium

Next Phase of Commercials


Superbowl commercials often foreshadow the norm in everyday TV commercials later. I noticed several things about this year’s crop of commercials.

1) They are definitely getting weirder, more whimsical, trying harder to catch your attention — while you check your email. They are no longer competing against the possibility of you leaving for the bathroom; they are competing with you re-watching the previous commercial on your Tivo or your iPad.

2) They are also more self-reflective, self-parodying, and complex. They “quote” not only cultural references, but specific other commercials. They often work only if you’ve seen other commercials, usually predecessors in the same line. In this way, each commercial must be “read” as part of a larger, longer work. Those Bud commercials go way back. The more commercials you’ve seen, the more you get out of the new one.

3) These are not primarily advertising products or service. They are advertising the commercial itself.

4) The commercials run during this 46th Superbowl are only one stage in a multi-stage organism. A fair proportion of the commercials debuting on the Superbowl were released earlier in teasers on the internet. You can think of these early clips as trailers for the commercial. They were, per point #3 above, commercials for the commercial. Or think of them as eggs for the hatchling. Then after the Superbowl, the advertisers released the extended forms of the commercial, also on the internet. I am aware of at least three ads which did that this year: Chevrolet/OK Go, Ferris Bueller, The Avengers. Which means the early clips were commercials for the commercials of the commercials. Or these are three stages of ads: egg, larva, adult. But this year, it seemed a good quarter of the commercials shown were for movies, which are themselves often hours-long product placement vehicles. So that makes a fourth stage, a further extension of whatever story is trying to be told. Since movies are sequeled if successful, the idea can grow to a fifth size, dozens of hours long.

5) All this suggests that the “natural habitat” of a commercial is on the internet. That’s where it is born, develops, matures and dies. Its brief, mayfly-length appearance on the Superbowl is primarily an ad to get you to watch it grow on the internet.

6) I predict that in a few years from now we’ll start to see 4.5-minute length commercial shorts that come after the extended-play version. Or maybe even “directors’ cut” versions. These outright unabashed commercials will run as long as a pop hit tune, and in format resemble a music video. We’ll see YouTube-ish channels that will charge you to watch them. I make this forecast based on the fact that this prime attention-niche is just one adjacent-possible step away.


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