How a blackout at the Superbowl became a goldmine for advertisers

A silver lining lined with actual silver.

Like many in the UK, I followed last night’s Superbowl in the dark, via twitter, on a glowing matchbox-sized screen.

Despite an American wife and many patient explanations from my father-in-law, an instinctive understanding of American Football continues to elude me – and yet I still love watching it.

Strangely, this is the case even when the spectacle is transmuted from an extravaganza of vast men, cheerleaders and fireworks to a torrent of 140 character outbursts.

The reason why became clear at the opening of the game’s third quarter, when incessant chatter about Beyonce’s half-time show was cut off by an onslaught of tweets about blackouts, organisational chaos and pissed-off advertisers.

In the end, the 34-minute stoppage, during which half the lights in New Orleans’ 73,000-seat Superdome were off and broadcasts were severely disrupted, made for the most interesting part of the game – from a cultural standpoint at least.

Oddly enough, I’d seen the exact same thing happen before from the other side of the screen. In 2007, I was watching the Oklahoma State Cowboys annihilate Florida Atlantic at the Boone Pickens stadium in Stillwater, OK, when half the stadium lights went out at the start of the third quarter.

During the sixteen minute outage that followed, the sea of orange-shirted fans turned introspective, discussing the opening action of the second half and reflecting on the general cultural artillery backing up the home team; the grotesque foam mascots, the confetti cannons, the US infantrymen improvising a press-up competition in the centre of the field to keep people pumped up.

Last night’s half-hour twitterval had the same atmosphere, amplified by the global pool of participants. People who hadn’t even planned to care about the Superbowl were getting sucked in, contributing to a growing discussion of the event that had increasingly little to do with football.

While advertisers paying up to $4m each for 30 second slots may have been incensed at the disruption to begin with, those keeping an eye on twitter (which we can assume to be all of them, given the preponderance of hashtags in this year’s superbowl ads), would have very quickly spotted a sliver lining to the organisational cloud hanging over the stadium.

For in the absence of any actual sport, bored fans and football-agnostic twitter browsers alike were turning, amongst other subjects, to discussion of the year’s ads.

The advertisement hashtags, which might otherwise have lingered in the sidelines of the Ravens/49ers confrontation, were being traded thick and fast alongside Beyonce lyric puns, New Orleans jokes and references to every film ever containing a power outage as plot element. Savvy advertisers, like Audi and Oreo, jumped straight in and started making their own wisecracks.

In the end, this half-hour break to talk about the cultural architecture underpinning the football ended up giving marketers more bang for their buck than an uninterrupted game would have done.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find a blackout in the programme for Superbowl 48 – with its own sponsor, of course. Any takers?

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage