Creativity fumbles at Super Bowl, but makes star turn at Oscars

Walmart's is launching an elaborate campaign called "The Receipt" for this year's Oscars

It’s pretty safe to say that ads during the Oscars have been better than the ones during the Super Bowl for the last several years now. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, the Super Bowl is generally getting its butt kicked.

From production values to the writing to the intelligence of the concepts and the artful attention to craft and detail, the Oscar commercial is superior in every metric, except two: the size of the audience watching it and the media cost of airing it (although the Oscars are gaining fast, up this year to $2.5 million for a 30 second slot).

Some examples of Oscar supremacy would be Kohl’s lip-sync spot from 2016, JCPenney’s multiple successes with “Get Your Penney’s Worth” and other campaigns over the years, and the less traditional ads like Ellen and Samsung’s “Selfie Seen Round the World” and now this year's stunner from Walmart, “The Receipt.” The project asked three directors – Antoine Fuqua, Marc Forster and partners Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg – to create 60-second short films based on six items on a Walmart receipt. So simple, so smart, and so spot-on for the audience and Walmart’s message: The possibilities are as endless in our stores as they are in storytelling.

But what is driving the quality of the ads at the Oscars? Are they smarter and the audience smaller because it is essentially the Elitist Bowl? The Women’s Bowl? The Adults-Only-Because-it’s-Too-Friggin’-Late-for-Kids-on-a-School-Night Bowl? Yes. Yes. And hell yes!

It’s also because the venue itself is about the appreciation of the filmic craft, an homage to one of the world’s most beloved art forms. Viewers are inherently pre-calibrated to appreciate commercials that play to this, just as Super Bowl ads play to their audience, which is far more mass, looking for a good time and not too thrilled with the idea of having to do any heavy thinking for the next three and a half hours.

During the Oscars, however, feel free to lay it on thick. Get artsy-fartsy to your heart’s content. Get preachy and poignant. And if you thought the Super Bowl ads got a bit too political, fasten your seatbelts, because Hollywood loves to make a statement, from dresses that show more anatomy than Behind the Green Door to acceptance speeches that rival The Gettysburg Address. So if you are a marketer, you pretty much have free reign to climb on that soapbox and let ‘er rip.

And my bet is that you will likely see even more brands doing just that. The only potential saving grace, however, could be the “me too” factor. After all, what brand wants to be seen jumping on the bandwagon late in the game? It feels opportunistic and disingenuous. But something tells me that won’t stop all of them. Except maybe Cheetos.

The element of surprise also gives the Oscars an edge over The Big Game because unlike the Super Bowl ad scene, almost no one pre-releases Oscar commercials. This is a smart move because pre-releasing advertising is just about the most unlikable and presumptuous thing a brand can do, expecting that consumers are eagerly standing by. But unless it’s a really slow week on the internet with nothing else to watch (in other words never), virtually no one cares about the ad except for the friends and family of the people who created it.

Lastly, the Oscars are free from the shackles of the infamous Admeter, which has been complicit in the demise of Super Bowl commercials, luring advertisers toward the shiny glow of a “top 5” standing. But these superficial returns are diminishing because brands essentially sell their souls for a cheap gag, a celeb sighting or a pratfall—anything to get that Admeter to spike. In their blind pursuit of bragging rights, many of them forget substance. They forget messaging and their brand purpose. They lose themselves and become, for lack of a better term, media whores, devolving into pull-your-pants-down, “look at me!,” pie-in-the-face marketing.

And at five million dollars a pop Super Bowl ads not only make our country look wasteful and out of touch with the financial woes of the world at large, but they also reflect poorly on the ad industry itself because we fail to show restraint.

So once again it looks like the Oscars are a lock for Best Commercials this year, but given the year we all just had, it might be nice to have a dumb laugh or two in there to lighten the load.

Ari Halper is chief creative officer of FCB New York

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