The Super Bowl has become the world championship for both football and advertising, but the annual event is of particular import for two dozen first-year graduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter (formerly the Adcenter).
After six months immersed in advertising analysis, the students have not only drunk the Kool-Aid, they're prepared to offer recipe advice to the dancing red pitcher.
"When you really get into this business, you can break these down really quickly," says Jordan Childs, 25, who's hosting a viewing party in his Fan apartment during the big game. He's printed out scorecards listing the companies who made major ad buys, from Anheuser-Busch to Toyota.
"Ninety percent of all ads people here are going to hate," he says, "because they're too dumbed up for the Super Bowl." A spot for the Honda Element, for example, shows the car at a tailgate party having a comic-strip-bubble dialog with a crab whose first language is not English. Transparent strategizing, Childs says. "The Honda Element is not usually marketed to men, so they made it a tailgate ad," he says.
A hush falls over the room when the game cuts to commercial. A squirrel rushing out to retrieve an acorn finds itself in the path of an oncoming car.
"Get him, get him," viewers chant from the couches. The squirrel screams. Cut to a screaming raccoon, owl, rabbit, mouse and praying mantis, which screams quietly. The car swerves at the last minute thanks to its sturdy Bridgestone tires. The crowd approves. It was funny, a little irreverent and self-referential, tied into the product; good show.
Tristan Smith, 23, hopes he and his colleagues can move advertising beyond the Red Lobster genre of stale shilling by telling inventive stories, engaging with real emotions and providing true entertainment that dovetails with brand identity.
"Everyone here is a creative person and a smart person that's perverting their talent to help industry -- but that doesn't mean we can't work to make that industry better," says Smith, contemplating his career path. "Maybe being a freelance screenwriter or a conceptual artist in Shanghai paying people to make sculpture for me would be cool options, but I wasn't willing to be destitute for 10 years."
In the third quarter, Democratic operative James Carville spends a day in Washington, D.C., with former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, washing it down with a Coca-Cola. Childs and Smith are let down. Sure, they're celebrities, but to what end?
"I give it a 3," Smith says.