Imagine This: A Super Bowl Ad For The Government Thomas Frank, a columnist for Harper's Magazine, speaks to host Robert Siegel about his idea of getting a bunch of ad executives to create a Super Bowl ad for Uncle Sam. If the U.S. government were a company, it would call in ad execs to rebrand. Also — ad executive Mark Fitzloff tells us about shaping the campaign, and we hear a radio version of the campaign.

Imagine This: A Super Bowl Ad For The Government

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The TV audience for the Super Bowl is huge. For last year's game it was estimate to be 106,500,000 people. That makes the Super Bowl an enormous opportunity for an advertiser in search of impressionable eyeballs.

Well, Harper's Magazine put that fact together with widespread hostility toward the federal government and it came up with this project: Compose a hypothetical Super Bowl commercial for Uncle Sam; a commercial to revive a suspect brand: The federal government.

The magazine brought in four creative types from big advertising agencies and sat them down to brainstorm.

Joining us is Harper's columnist and author Thomas Frank.

Mr. THOMAS FRANK (Columnist, Harper's Magazine): How are you today, Robert?

And one of the brainstormers, Mark Fitzloff, an executive director at the advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, joins us. Welcome to you.

Mr. MARK FITZLOFF (Executive Director, Wieden and Kennedy): Hello, thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, Thomas Frank, tell us about the notion of devising a commercial for the federal government.

Mr. FRANK: One of the criticisms of Washington that you hear all the time is that if only the federal government was run more like a business, then it wouldnt be so awful and so dreadful. Well, we thought about it. One of the things that the federal government would do if it was run by, like a business, is it would advertise. It wouldnt let its brand get run down in the way that -I mean, the federal government is uniquely unpopular.

SIEGEL: Well, Mark Fitzloff, tell us about some of the ideas that you and your fellow ad men tossed around and tossed out.

Mr. FITZLOFF: Well, I think our inclination was that you had to treat the government with a little bit more respect. You know, obviously comedy is a favorite tool for Super Bowl commercials. But our hunch was that as the brand that you're representing gets more important in people's lives, then the value of comedy probably goes down.

So if you're making an advertisement for deodorant, by all means, joke away. But if you're making an advertisement for the federal government, maybe thats not the time or place. Now, saying that, of course, as soon as we went back to our corners to actually come up with Super Bowl ideas, we threw all of that theory away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FITZLOFF: We just kind of went for it. And we created the "Halftime Special," sponsored by the federal government. And so we have Stephen Colbert hosting the halftime show. And what he is setting out to do is during the course of the "Halftime Special," watch the approval ratings go from the crapper to the top of our little meter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Your meter has some interesting levels, levels of public attitude toward the government.

Mr. FITZLOFF: There's obvious ones like man on the Moon. And then some slightly tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic ones like mission accomplished. The kind of ultimate is the queen mother herself, Oprah coming out and rewarding everyone with free cars, which is all you really need to shoot the approval ratings up.

SIEGEL: Now, each of the four agencies involved here came up with an idea, and Tom Frank, there's one I'd like you to describe, which is the one in which you see somebody painting a moustache on a big mural of Chairman Mao, and later, somebody throws a pie in the face of Adolf Hitler while he's giving a speech. And someone streaks past President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who's there with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

On the screen at the end of that spot, can you read what they say?

Mr. FRANK: This is supposed to be a voiceover, but it says: Wherever they live, people can speak their minds, but there are very places that can actually get away with it.

FLATOW: Mark Fitzloff, you remark that being confronted with a Super Bowl ad campaign is not always the best thing that happens to you in your work as a creative director in advertising.

Mr. FITZLOFF: No, it just raises the stakes and the pressure on what one is hoping to accomplish with the advertising. So it gets into your head as a creative person to think, well, where is my explosions, where are my dancing animals, et cetera, et cetera.

So none of that leads to good, honest, authentic communication, which I think in the case of the federal government's problem is absolutely what's needed. And I think actually the best case of advertising I've seen for the government recently is their decision to cross the aisles and sit together at the State of the Union Address.

SIEGEL: Let's imagine for a moment that Harper's had no tongue in its cheek when it set out doing this. Why isn't this a realistic proposition, to have a Super Bowl campaign for the federal government?

Mr. FRANK: Well, it sounds like a great idea when you, you know, when you describe it in some of the ways that we've been describing it. But like everything else here in Washington, it would be considered partisan.

Mr. FITZLOFF: And as the creative person who'd be charged with that, I think the most difficult assignment would be to make this nonpartisan because that piece of communication doesn't exist. Everything would be misconstrued. There would be meaning found in every decision that you make that it's some sort of commentary from one side or the other.

Mr. FRANK: Can you imagine the fights they'd have over it?

Mr. FITZLOFF: Oh, that's a creative's nightmare as far as the clients go.

SIEGEL: Mark Fitzloff, can you imagine a more difficult client to work for than the federal government?

Mr. FITZLOFF: I cannot imagine a more difficult assignment. And my outlook and prognosis would be grim if I had this assignment really plopped into my lap.

SIEGEL: Mark Fitzloff of Wieden and Kennedy in Portland, Oregon, and Thomas Frank of Harper's Magazine, both of whom participated in Harper's project to compose a Super Bowl spot for the federal government. Thanks to both of you for talking with us.

Mr. FRANK: Sure thing.

Mr. FITZLOFF: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

SIEGEL: And by the way, the group came up with two more Super Bowl ads for Uncle Sam. One proclaims: Our government is a lot like ice cream, little children try to reach consensus, choosing vanilla over chocolate. And the other features the actor Robert Downey, Jr., standing on Mount Rushmore, saying: Only in America can a beloved, handsome movie star stand atop a national monument.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.