Ad vet's book scores TD, misses extra point


The name Bernice Kanner may not be familiar to many readers, but we remember her well.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, she wrote a breezy and opinionated marketing column for New York magazine called “On Madison Avenue.”

Kanner is one of the first scribes we know of who made the business of advertising and the personalities in it a fun, interesting read for those not closely associated with the industry. She seemed instinctively to know how to take potentially dry-as-dust material and give it a real spark.

But after a 13-year run, her column ended in 1994, and since then she’s been busy writing books. Her newest, out this month, is The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game (Bloomberg Press, 215 pages, $29.95), which brings her back to an arena she obviously knows well. The new release is intended as an overview of what is touted every year — without fail — as the biggest single happening for fans of television advertising.

Of course, thanks to the relentless hype that starts months before the big game in innumerable media outlets, the Super Bowl of advertising is now a topic of interest to millions of people who used to tune in on the big Sunday to watch football, but now often find the game an afterthought when they have been instructed again and again to make the advertising their main focal point.

Kanner’s book starts exactly where you’d expect it to, at the beginning, and moves briskly through the years and decades as she briefly describes major ads in Super Bowl history.

In the second half of the book, ads are batched together in broad categories such as food, beer, sex and animals and sneaker wars, before ending with what appear to be tacked-on chapters about Pepsi Cola and the infamous dot-com Super Bowl in the year 2000.

Occasionally Kanner stops just long enough to mention a trend that surfaced at certain moments in the history of Super Bowl advertising, but she isn’t interested in dwelling on any commercial or any theme longer than a few sentences.

As you may have already surmised, such an approach is inherently problematic because the book comes off in the end as little more than a superficial and uninvolving list of Super Bowl advertising, instead of a probing analysis of how the advertising event has evolved. 

Kanner gets a few things quite right, though. For instance, she correctly pinpoints Apple Computer’s seminal “1984” commercial for its then-new Macintosh computer as the one truly big event that set the stage for what is now known as the Super Bowl of Advertising.

That haunting commercial, shown only once, was a genuine landmark moment in the history of advertising. But Kanner, in her rush to lay out what came after, fails to adequately address the fact that almost every Super Bowl ad that followed “1984” hasn’t come close to matching its big idea. 

The magnitude of “1984” relative to most of the ads that have aired on the Super Bowl since then is especially apparent as Kanner’s book deals with the late 1990s and the still-new millennium. Here she only hints at some of the big problems threatening to do in the Super Bowl of advertising, such as a heavy reliance on lowbrow humor in lieu of great concepts and a cheapening of the overall quality of the work. 

Kanner thankfully stops short of being a gutless cheerleader for the ad industry in The Super Bowl of Advertising , but she has the knowledge and the perspective to have written a much more hard-hitting and memorable book than the one she delivered.