Why Super Bowl Ads Don't Work

February 4, 2014
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If I were to tell you to be as funny as you could for the next ten minutes, chances are, unless you're a stand-up comedian, you probably wouldn't be able to make me crack a smile. If I didn't tell you to be funny, however, you could probably have me rolling on the floor in stitches.

Why is this? There's something about intentional humor that just doesn't work. When we look back on our lives, most of the things that made us laugh the hardest often caught us at unsuspecting times and in situations where we weren't expecting to crack up. Humor requires spontaneity. As soon as something is announced to be "funny," it loses its potential to be hilarious. It can be mildly funny, but it can't be hilarious. It's like having an obnoxious friend who complains that you never laugh at his jokes. You can't genuinely find your friend funny because he's trying to convince you he is.

Therein exists the problem with Super Bowl ads. Every February, millions of Americans are told that companies will be rolling out all the most entertaining commercials of the year. We all wait eagerly. We all expect to burn as many calories laughing as we would running a mile. The truth is, we don't. We remember a couple of humorous ads, maybe, but that's it.

The funniest commercials usually rely on a simple punchline and nothing more. We all, for instance, enjoy a good E-trade commercial where a baby is lecturing in an adult's voice on how we should invest more in stock or a Doritos one where a kid resurrects his grandfather by pouring Doritos crumbs in his ashes. We don't, however, enjoy many Super Bowl commercials because they violate the rules of this formula, trying so hard in so little time to jam so many comical sequences in our heads that we don't have time or energy to psychologically process all of it. The result is a commercial that could have been funny but felt overblown and pretentious, like it was trying make us laugh. We're supposed to laugh, so we don't.

Another inherent problem with Super Bowl commercials may be the very idea of having all the year's best commercials run one right after another on the same night. If there does happen to be a hilarious ad, most of us don't have time to laugh, since we're so intent on watching the next one. Humor is most effective when savored, but Super Bowl Sunday forces us to take it in gulps. We don't like to take it in gulps.

Advertisers these days spend millions just to have a clip in there, which seems like a lot of excess money when you consider that most of these commercials aren't any better than most normal ones. Perhaps they should stop trying so hard.

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