Super Bowl ads are THE cutting edge of mass communication in our society. If you want to think of it in genetic terms, think of a chromosome — feature films and television shows are the conserved region, commercials are the hyper-variable region, and the Super Bowl is the epicenter of mutations. All science and environmental communicators should watch and learn from Super Bowl ads each year. Here’s a few thoughts.


“Can you really tell a whole story in just sixty seconds?” I hear this question all the time with the students at the start of my 3 day workshops where they make 60 second videos. This wonderful Super Bowl commercial from Coke answers the question clearly.


Last fall I was at an event in Hollywood and met a guy who graduated from USC Cinema School a few years before me. He said he initially thought about directing feature films, but found the process too uncreative. He ended up being drawn into television commercials.

I guess I always knew this divide, but never heard it stated so clearly. With feature films, novelty is the kiss of death. The way you pitch feature films shows it — you draw on familiar elements — as in, “Think of the movie I’m proposing as Terminator meets Die Hard.” It’s all about familiarity — avoiding ANYTHING that is new.

But television commercials are the opposite. Producers listen to pitches, desperately searching for new angles, images, voices, perspectives and say, “That’s been done already,” over and over again.

As a parallel, if you want to think of it in genetic terms, think of a chromosome. Feature films are the conserved region; commercials are the hyper-variable region. So let me relate one of yesterday’s best Super Bowl commercials to the amazing time I had in Norway last month running my 3 day workshop where the students essentially made similar 60 second television commercials.


I had such an amazing time in Norway. The best part was having students LISTEN to what you give them for advice, and for them to be brave enough to trust you and take a chance, and then see it actually work. So this note is directed primarily at the 25 Norwegian graduate students in the workshop, but everyone else is welcome to listen in.

What Coca Cola did with their Super Bowl commercial of the two border guards is EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING I was talking about. You guys made 2/3 of the journey. Imagine if we had all been brave enough and had the resources to go 100% of the way, ending up with something like that. It could happen.

Let’s talk about that Coca Cola ad, which was excellent. Checking out two of the websites that evaluated all the Super Bowl commercials (which is more than just a fun exercise if you work professionally in making this sort of media) we see that USA Today rated it as #10 in their list of 61 spots, or #5 if you remove all the ones that use animals (if I ever made a Super Bowl commercial it would feature a dog, a chimp and a duck — guaranteed winner). This other website gave it a score of 86%, which only a few others scored better than.

I loved it because it told such a clear, simple, clean, engrossing story with clear structure. It has a bunch of exposition at the start, then at about 20 seconds — exactly where you would expect it — the first act ends with the establishment of the source of tension when the one guard has a Coke and the other doesn’t. The second act is the journey through which the tension is dealt with and even hits a lowest point when one guard draws his sword causing the other one to think it’s time for battle.

Eventually there is a resolution and releasing of the tension. It’s a beautiful little story in three acts. And it’s so well executed you can’t take your eyes off the screen — perfect production value, beautifully nuanced facial expressions, and most importantly, a razor sharp music score that drives the dramatic moments as well as the resolution. It is a piece of art.


And this takes us back to Norway where the students did the best job ever of “taking direction” by implementing my suggestions, then finding the changes moved their work in the direction of more effective broad communication — which was the goal of the exercise. Here’s the best example.

One of the students, Cedar Chittenden, sent in an initial script that was the standard straight-forward set of statements about a science problem. Here’s the opening of her original proposed script:

NARRATOR: Scientists at the University of Tromsø set out to do what no one had done before: to figure out where northern Atlantic salmon go once they enter the ocean! Textbooks guess at the marine habitat range for this important species because very little is known (short interview with Audun Rikardsen). There are no salmon fisheries in the open ocean of the Arctic, so traditional tag and recapture methods can’t be used. So how did they do it?

This would have all been okay, but let’s face it, it’s a little dull unless you’re a salmon researcher. I promise you your next door neighbor who works in a bank would be disinterested after the first sentence.

I gave her a suggestion before her pitch. What happened was my favorite outcome — which was that she said, “No, not that idea, BUT, you’ve prompted me to think of a new way to approach this topic.” And her new way turned out to be the wonderful James Bond film — far less literal than the initial text, far more fun, and far more likely for your neighbor to get something out of it. She pitched the idea, the students loved it, and she was selected.

So we can ask what was lost in the process of going from her initial version to the final version? I’ll tell you what was lost — INFORMATION.

Yes, the load of information in the one minute film was massively lightened. And now, if you say, “Ah, ha! You dumbed it down!” Well, then, I hate to say it, but you don’t understand film, meaning you fail to grasp the power of the medium. What good is a film that, yes, has ALL the facts in it, but is so dull that nobody wants to watch it? These are the trade-offs you face. Do you want everyone to enjoy your film, learn the ONE fact that you think is most important, and even want to watch it multiple times? Or do you want everyone to be bored, forced to sit through the entire film, and even with a length of 60 seconds, find themselves thinking about what they are doing this evening rather than following the pile of information being thrown at them?


And now, for another example, I’m talking to the team who produced, “Cold Rush.” Imagine if your miner had been as good of an actor as these two characters in the Coke commercial (which he could well be). And imagine we had an unlimited budget. So you have that opening scene where he’s panning for something, then he pulls out one of the bacteria, holds it up with a smile, but then a mouse jumps up and grabs it from him. He chases the mouse one way, then the other, they finally stand off, the mouse finds some way to elude him, then runs into his burrow with the bacterium, holds it up and says something like, “Can’t wait to call the biogenetics lab about this one!” Then it cuts to a simple graphic, “There’s a fortune to be made in the genetics of Arctic bacteria. To learn more visit:”

The key point is that if you were able to pull off the scene with the mouse with the same quality as the Coke commercial, you could have had a piece that held the attention of EVERY possible viewer for 45 seconds, causing most viewers to desperately want to know, “What in the world is this commercial about?” And then finally solving their curiosity with the final moments making clear the purpose.


Imagine if the U.S. science community believed enough in the power and importance of mass communication to actually invest $3 million in such a commercial and buy a time slot for the Super Bowl. Wouldn’t that be inspiring?

Wouldn’t that be more exciting than spending the same $3 million on yet another documentary that trudges through all the specifics of how research is being conducted in the Arctic for genetic resources. Who wants to watch that stuff? Actually, I’ll tell you who — some of the people who would have first seen the Super Bowl ad and had their curiosity aroused. Same old deal — arouse first, then bombard with information.

People talk about the crisis facing science education. None of the crisis is in the “fulfill” part of the arouse and fulfill couplet. Mass media has the power and potential to make major contributions to the arouse part. You just need to find people bold and brave enough to take some chances by producing something more than the same old tired hour long documentaries that very few people have time to watch any more.

It’s a brave new world out there. Science shouldn’t lag behind.