According to Adweek, total sharing of the 10 most viral Superbowl ads was down 36% from 2015, dropping from 4.5 million total shares to 2.9 million. Why did this happen? Timm Nudd of Adweek writes that the commercials may have “felt a little underwhelming—with lots of good ads but few great ones,” reducing the problem to a lack of quality. This perceived slump in quality could be indicative of a greater problem—a growing disconnect between consumers and the constant messaging thrown at them, evidenced by the backlash against advertisements on social media and the popularity of ad-blocking apps.
However, Doritos “Ultrasound” spot was shared 893,465 times, and T-Mobile’s 30 and 60 second version of their “Restricted Bling” spot were shared a combined 471,405 times. This means that Doritos spot was shared almost 200% more than the next ‘most viral’ commercial, so without delving into the ‘why,’ it’s clear that some commercials were able to connect with consumers. The problem with Adweek’s explanation is that using quality as a scapegoat assumes that if a commercial is compelling then consumers will share it. The problem with blaming widespread annoyance with the pervasiveness of advertisements is that people shared ads like Doritos “Ultrasound” close to a million times, a number that only two advertisements were able to break last year, one of which was a movie trailer (six of the top ten most shared ads were movie trailers). Advertisers are still able to connect with people, and they are still able to craft stories that are engaging, not invasive. Even from personal experience, there were many ads that I personally enjoyed and so did almost everyone else I watched with. But I didn’t share any on social media. Perhaps that’s the problem, then; not the ads or people’s perception of them, but rather the role that social media plays in all of this.
Let’s look at the larger picture. People have grown averse to the invasion of advertisements. There has been mass-groaning as ads have been introduced to some of the most used platforms and spaces in the world (Instagram and Snapchat come to mind). There seems to be a dwindling number of bastions of ad-free space online. Multiple ad-blocking apps have dominated the Apple store top 10 most downloaded chart (last September, three ad-blocking apps held the number 1, 3 and 6 spots on the list). As Patrick Kulp wrote for Mashable, “The people have spoken: mobile ads suck.”
Speaking from the perspective of a 22-year-old, mobile ads really do suck. I grimace every time I am forced to watch an ad on my phone. I release an audible sigh of frustration when I want to quickly show a friend a video on youtube but we have to sit through a 30-second ad that neither of us want to watch. That’s the thing: I’m not choosing to watch these ads, I’m being forced to. With the Superbowl, I watch because I want to. I watch because I enjoy the advertisements, and I know many of my friends like to watch them too.
However, increasing frustration with advertisements within social media has made me feel less inclined to share an interesting advertisement than ever before. I don’t want to add to the clutter, and no matter how compelling or funny an ad is I won’t feel inspired to share it on Facebook. This doesn’t mean that advertisements are evil or bad or even annoying. What it means is that advertisements and social media have a complex relationship, so measuring the overall quality or creativity of advertisements by the number of ‘shares’ seems like an outdated and unreliable practice.
Social media is changing. While I hesitate to indict Facebook, as I still frequently log in to check it out, I have noticed less and less of my friends posting things on the social media giant’s platform. Most people I know stopped changing their status long ago. Uploading pictures to Facebook has changed from something done immediately and with excitement to a burden perpetually put off for a tomorrow that rarely comes. The one thing that still pervades Facebook is sharing. Any given day, one can find an endless stream of articles, blog posts and videos that friends have deemed noteworthy. As powerful as this tool can be (see viral sharing of breaking events, or the sharing of locations/check-ins during the Paris attacks) it is a far cry from the interactive and social playground that Facebook used to be. In fact, those who overshare on Facebook often find themselves being unfriended, blocked or the target of internet trolls. As Facebook degrades from a medium where multitudes interact into a medium where the few interact and advertisers try to get in front of the eyes of the majority, people share less and observe more.
Facebook, and social media in general, are hardly static, and a real change is happening in front of our eyes as we turn from active sharers into passive observers. Facebook is turning into the world’s biggest reality television show. This doesn’t change the fact that social media is an important measuring stick and lightning rod for brands and advertisements. However, claiming that it wasn’t a great year for quality Superbowl ads seems like a statement that overlooks the real factor at play; people seem to feel less inclined than ever before to share within social media, a space whose current evolution must be taken into account by the marketers and advertisers who depend upon it.