How Motorola’s Apple-bashing ad scored at the Super Bowl

The annual glut of overpriced Super Bowl advertising has come and gone, and as a digital marketer, I am required by my guild – The Guild of Resentful Digital Marketers – to pen a cranky blog post about how those ad dollars could have been better spent online. But in flagrant defiance of guild rules, I will instead argue that one of those ads was precisely the right investment for the brand: Motorola’s gleefully Apple-bashing “Empower the People” ad.

Amidst a flock of ads full of hollow chest-beating, Motorola’s ad, starring its soon-to-be-released Xoom tablet, was a barbaric yawp over the rooftops of Apple fanboys across the land. As most readers must already know, it made sport of Apple’s iconic “1984” ad, which portrayed PC users as trapped in dystopian conformity. Motorola’s ad suggests that Apple has now created a dystopia of its own, with slavish iPad users glumly poring over their Flashless screens while those crappy white Apple headphones bleat in their ears.

Mere hours after the ad’s airing, the blogosphere is already brimming with posts decrying the absurdity of Motorola’s attempt to hoist Apple by its own petard. The decriers rightly point out that Motorola and Google are not exactly scrappy upstarts. And unlike the PC market in 1984, there’s nothing even remotely monopolistic about Apple being the first to market with a well-crafted piece of hardware that’s now facing a flood of as many as 40 competitors.

But these complaints, while perfectly sound on their own merits, are based on the belief that thecontent of the ad is of primary importance. It is not. The airing of the ad is the main thing, because it is the means by which Motorola asserts itself as the main rival to the tablet throne. Motorola could have aired a 60-second still shot of the Xoom and sent the same signal (albeit less enjoyably). The signal is:We spent Super Bowl money to advertise a tablet, so we’re pretty damn sure of ourselves. We are now the ones to beat.

And wouldn’t you know, I have a theory that explains all this – not my theory, but one developed by game theorist and Nobel Laureate economist Michael Spence in 1973. Spence’s theory of costly signaling was first used to demonstrate how acquiring an MBA degree sends a signal to employers that a candidate is qualified – not because of what they learn in the MBA program, but because a high-quality candidate is more likely to endure the financial, emotional, and time commitment costs than a low-quality candidate. Spence found that employers accepted the MBA signal as valid because they reasoned (unconsciously) that a high-ability candidate was more likely to consider advanced education to be worth the cost and risk.

Motorola is hoping that you’ll read the same costly signal in their Super Bowl ad, i.e., that a tablet that pays Super Bowl money to make the claim that it’s better than an iPad is, in fact, better than an iPad. In my previous work on game theory and marketing, I applied Spence’s theory to Super Bowl advertising by arguing that a Super Bowl ad serves as a legitimacy signal above all else; it tells us either that a brand believes it can win (see Chrysler’s comeback ads) or is going to keep on winning (see everything Coca-Cola and Budweiser have ever done). Making the ads entertaining is a way to gain buzz, which is secondary in importance, and to ensure that top creative directors can still afford prescription Ray-Bans, which is tertiary.

So as much as it pains me, I cannot claim that Motorola could have achieved the same costly signal by spending its estimated $3m investment online. Despite causing George Orwell to spin madly in his grave for the second time in less than three decades, Motorola made the right move, and the tablet gauntlet has been righteously thrown down on the eve of the Xoom’s launch. But in the interests of keeping the guild happy, I will stick to my stance that the Super Bowl investment doesn’t pencil out for most marketers, and that they should really check out this whole Internet thing. Lipton, I’m looking at you. Call me.