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 I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era