Brand + Advertising
What Ray Charles taught me about marketing
From kicks to ads, it’s memories that make the Super Bowl
The date was January 27, 1991. The Gulf War had begun just 10 days earlier—though I had very little understanding of what that meant. My Buffalo Bills faced off against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. I was 9 and hadn’t really paid attention to the Super Bowl before then. I wasn’t necessarily a football fan yet—I was a Bills fan. If Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas or Bruce Smith weren’t on the field, I wasn’t that interested.
The Bills were heavily favored to win and I was as sure as any pre-’91 Bills fan that they would. Jim Kelly and the K-gun offense fought hard, but backup QB Jeff Hostetler and the Giants’ stalwart defense was up to the task. As fate would have it, we lost on the last play—the kick was wide right and I learned why the holder has the worst job in football.
Looking back past the heartbreak and ignoring the following three Super Bowls that would turn every Bills fan into the grizzled, table-jumping hooligans we became—there was a moment that night that burned itself into my brain. It was an ad during the first quarter. It opens on a solitary figure wearing giant sunglasses, sitting at a grand piano. The space is dimly lit and framed by palm fronds. Then … all hell breaks loose. The lights go up and the NutraSweet-powered production blasts off on my 20” Zenith. There’s a chorus line and trumpets and backup dancers, all surrounding the sunglassed singer as he bobs and weaves his way through the new Diet Pepsi jingle: “You got the right one, baby—uh huh!” I remember asking myself “What’s up with that guy?”—only later discovering it was the legendary Ray Charles, of course. In the days and weeks following the Super Bowl, that Diet Pepsi jingle echoed through the hallways of my school and in silly exchanges with my friends. It became more than an ad—if even for a brief time.
It was the first time I noticed advertising—and its power to be memorable. In prep for this weekend, and through the magic of YouTube, I rewatched every ad from the 1991 Super Bowl. I can assure you, Pepsi was ahead of its time. I recalled only one other spot: Hulk Hogan painting on the beach, slinging Right Guard for its “Anything less would be uncivilized” campaign, but only because I was a Hulkamaniac (it’s a thing). This was also the year Coca-Cola made the bold announcement that in lieu of a highly produced ad, it would donate $1 million to the USO because of the war. While admirable, it didn’t stick with me and the other ads that year were either flat or just bad. Almost all of them aged horribly.
For me, the Super Bowl has become a sign of the times. It’s been played through every kind of catastrophe, from impending war to 9/11 to an electrical blackout to a pandemic. And the marketing woven around each game acts as a mirror of our society and culture at that time. It features some of the most defining moments for brands and can trigger memories of who we were with and what was happening in our lives. It’s no wonder many brands are tapping into nostalgia in their ads—it’s a powerful emotion. One that grounds us during times of instability and reminds us that we’ve been there before and will be just fine. It can also remind us of silly trends and fashion from our childhood (insert pic of me wearing Bugle Boy jeans and LA Gear sneaks).
So here we are, 32 years after Scott Norwood kicked a fade one foot outside the right upright. My own boys are 9 and 7, and while I’m looking forward to watching this Sunday’s action, I wonder what, if anything, will stick with them. They have many more distractions that I did: video games, tablets, YouTube, Disney+. They might not even watch the game at all—which I’m actually OK with. But I know for a fact that every brand placing a spot this year is trying their darndest to create the next Ray Charles/Diet Pepsi cultural moment—uh huh. We’ll see if they succeed. Go Bills.
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Marshall has been a builder his entire career. He built his way up at DS+CO, starting as an intern before earning his path to Executive Creative Director. He’s built award-winning creative, receiving a D&AD Pencil, Graphis Silver Award and three National American Advertising Awards in the process. He’s developed a tightly knit team of talented and kind creatives, inspiring them out of their comfort zones to create boundary-pushing work. But most importantly, he’s built a family he loves—a family that inspires him to keep building, no matter the project at hand.