Should March Madness Advertising Go In A New Direction?

Tomorrow we will learn who the new best men’s college basketball team in America is for 2014.  The UConn Huskies will square off against the Kentucky Wildcats tomorrow evening in Texas in the finals of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, more commonly known as “March Madness”.  And that’s as much basketball as I’m going to talk this week.  True to the name of this blog, I want to present you this week with more of an introspection.

Over the past few months, a couple of my posts have dealt with sports marketing, specifically, for the Super Bowl and the Olympics.  I examined several commercials that aired during the broadcast of those events and gave my insight as to why they were effective pieces of work, as well as why they served to market their products well to their appropriate target audiences.  For this week, seeing as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is ending, I was planning on doing another post that was identical in concept and format.

This changed, however, when I got a full sense of what aired during the tournament.  Let’s look at my top five campaigns from the past couple weeks:

1. Toyota, “Coach T”, Saatchi & Saatchi, Los Angeles

2. Buffalo Wild Wings, “The Coach”, 22squared, Atlanta

3. CapitalOne ft. Charles Barkley, DDB, Chicago

4. Audi ft. Ricky Gervais, Venables Bell & Partners, San Francisco

5. Burger King ft. Chris Webber, MindShare

If you look at all of these campaigns, what do you notice?  I see in two of them the cariacaturesque portrayal of a stereotype.  In two, there are well-known basketball players.  In one, there’s an A-list celebrity.  These spokesmen are clearly integrated into these ads to make the brands in question relatable, approachable, and humorous to the typical watcher of March Madness.  When I say “typical watcher”, I’m talking about the guys who hit up the bar after work to enjoy a Yuengling while shooting the breeze and watching the most recent buzzer-beater on the big screen.  That’s the target audience for most ads that air during this event, in my opinion.

But do you know what else I notice?   A lack of connection to the true essence of the game.  Now, don’t get me wrong, they’re really effective pieces of advertising, and I enjoy watching those campaigns every time they’re on.  I’m just saying that most of the ads that have aired this year (and, let’s face it, pretty much every year of the tournament), use the wry humor route to reach their audiences.  There are very few that seek to promote the aspects of the event, namely, basketball itself, that speak to the human spirit.

It seems to me that this trend contrasts with marketing efforts during other major sporting events.  Look at the Super Bowl.  Of course you have ads that are crude, even perverted, and yet they make you laugh hard.  But there are some that affect you in ways that you never expected.  They touch you because they speak to your emotions, your motivations, your beliefs, and even your soul.  Those ads transcend the confines of traditional advertising to become art.  Remember Ram’s “Farmer” commercial from last year?

When this came on at my house, everyone in the room just stopped and stared for two minutes.  If that’s not power, I don’t know what is.

We also had the Olympics a couple months ago.  I love advertising during that event because it always seems to reflect the values and stories of the Games themselves.  As the Olympics are about the struggle and perserverance of the human spirit, the ads reflect a similar idea of achievement.  They reflect humanity and humanistic ideals in ways that are profound, earnest, and sacred.  In this way, advertisers establish their brands as not solely being concerned with pushing products, creating a unique diversion from traditional fluff advertising and marketing.

My question is, why can’t advertising during March Madness be constructed to have a similar effect on viewers?  The tournament is chock-full of humanity.  The players and coaches go through a lot during this time.  So many emotions run high for them – anticipation, determination, intensity, agony, disappointment, devastation, joy, anger, confusion…just to name a few.  They’ve worked hard for months, even years, to get to the tournament, and every time they step on the court, it could be the end of their season.  Sometimes their fate is determined by one final shot thrown toward the basket right when the clock runs out.  All of a sudden, it’s out of their control.  Even after they gave it everything they had.

If you think of it that way, college basketball might not seem like so much fun anymore.  But I don’t want to deter you from all the enjoyable aspects of the game.  I love the history behind the event, the blaring pep bands, the screaming face-painted fans, the school spirit, and the expectation of the unexpected.  It really is thrilling.  And I feel that there are stories and experiences in those moments with which consumers will easily connect.  And I feel that if advertisers want to reach the widest audience possible, they should embrace that idea and concentrate their efforts to market to wider audiences than they are now.

True, the audience for this event is mostly male, whereas the major media voice for the Super Bowl this year was women¹, and the Olympics have always been a family-viewed event.  These widespread demographics warrant the creation of advertising with varying tones.  But while I understand the audience for March Madness is mostly male, I don’t think we should forget the other demographics that are watching.  Because I strongly believe that they are watching, and that’s an opportunity for an advertiser to connect with them.  Sports marketing, regardless of the event, should never just be for the guys at the bar.

What do you think?  Should March Madness advertising convey a more serious tone?  Or should we keep it at the “coaches” and Charles Barkley?  Sound off in the comments, or talk to me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

See you next week!

1. Gordon, K.  (2014, January 27).  Women Are the Dominant Media Voice During the Super Bowl.  Adweek.  Retrieved from http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/women-are-dominant-media-voice-during-super-bowl-155227.

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