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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.