Super Bowl XLWHTEVR: Is the Mass Audience Still Relevant?

Super Bowl XLWHTEVR: Is the Mass Audience Still Relevant?

50 years ago, entire academic disciplines were being built on the basis of concerns that TV, movies, and the radio were turning humanity into a homogeneous mass audience that would be dangerously susceptible to manipulation by the owners of the means of dissemination. Rupert Murdoch notwithstanding, in this century media critics have done a 180 and started worrying about the fragmenting audience: now, anyone on the Internet can watch, hear, and read exactly what he or she wants to, whenever he or she wants to. Instead of TV zombies, we’re now worried about iPhone rangers.

Even if we’re no longer all flushing our toilets during commercial pit stops on the Yellow Brick Road, there are still a few media events that bring us all together—and among those events, the annual Super Bowl is the big enchilada. The Patriots-Giants battle today is projected to reach 117 million viewers, many of them people like me who are typically indifferent to sports and have to take a break from blogging about the game to look up who’s actually playing in it.

NBC has collected a cool $250 million from advertisers looking to wallop us all at once. That would pay for a lot of Scrabble sets’ worth of targeted Google AdWords, but many big companies still want to take advantage of the opportunity to slather their brand across America indiscriminately. Is that a winning bet?

It’s hard to tell. It’s extremely difficult to measure the impact of ads—especially TV ads that you can’t count clicks on. That said, Super Bowl advertisers get what they paid for: membership in the Super Bowl Advertisers’ Club. A Super Bowl ad is the kind of branding bling you usually can’t get without naming a stadium or having Nelly write a song about you: you’re shouldering in there with the big boys, and whether or not your ad actually inspires anyone to buy your product is almost beside the point.

You’re also buying association with a national holiday, one that involves at least as much junk food and even more beer than the average holiday. A lot of people are getting together today to actually see who wins the game, but there are also tens of millions of people (I’m raising my own hand again) who are getting together just because they don’t want to miss the party. If you had a couple million dollars to spare, why wouldn’t you want to crash 20 million parties simultaneously? The fact that we’re all curling up with Netflix the other 364 days of the year makes the Super Bowl all the more important as a unique opportunity to party like it’s 1989.

If the Super Bowl dies during our lifetimes, it won’t be because of the fragmenting of the mass audience: we like to huddle en masse at least once or twice a year. If anything brings the big Bowl down, it will be the quickly mounting scientific evidence that football scrambles players’ brains—though in a world where reality doesn’t stop us from going to war, it probably won’t stop us from playing a game. If that does happen, no doubt we’ll find a Super Bowl substitute. When a 53-year-old Rihanna has a wardrobe malfunction (if, indeed, there’s any wardrobe left) at the seventh-inning stretch of the 2041 World Series, all 117 million of us will have it locked down on TiVo.

Jay Gabler