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How a blackout at the Superbowl became a goldmine for advertisers

A silver lining lined with actual silver.

New Statesman

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?