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Ravens, 49ers, and the Commercials that Define Them

 

We spend the weeks before the Super Bowl watching loops of highlights and anticipating how popular brands will use their four-million-dollar ad slots, but rarely do we do both at the same time. However, this year is special. After we’ve trampled on all obvious storylines—the retirement of Ray Lewis, Harbaugh genetics, Kaepernicking, etc.—the real clue to Super Bowl XLVII may come down to a pair of Visa commercials from five months ago.

Visa launched their NFL Fan Offers campaign in the fall, giving football fiends the chance to win prizes like Super Bowl tickets or a hangout session with John Madden. To promote the program, Visa ran two significant commercials: one for the Baltimore Ravens, and one for the San Francisco 49ers. With respect to DVR, you may be vaguely aware of NFL Fan Offers, because FOX and CBS ran the commercials so many times each Sunday that I was almost ready to petition for the “Can You Hear Me Now?” guy to come back in their place.

Credit card commercials are usually full of empty references to APR financing, but these Visa spots stand out for the way they emphasize the differences between the Super Bowl contenders. Here’s why…

This Ray Lewis commercial debuted back in September, well before anybody knew his plan to retire after the season. In many ways, the 30-second spot reflects the character of this Ravens team—personable, charming, gracious. It’s all about Ray, but presented in a way that makes him likeable. Personally, I’m not a fan of Lewis because of his history of off-field problems, but I think the commercial is incredibly appealing. It screams, “look at the cute girl doing the Ray Lewis dance,” and that’s the point. You forget about the past.

Also worth noting, Lewis’s teammates, some of whom are Pro Bowlers and future Hall-of-Famers, are absent from the commercial. Ray is the star. He’s the Raven. He’s the guy crying at midfield after miracle wins; he’s dancing and hollering and leading his team. In other words, he’s being Ray Lewis.

A few weeks later, Visa premiered the Niners commercial, a striking team effort that seems unlike every sports ad on the air. You might recognize some of the San Francisco players in the background, but there aren’t any marketable stars. The Niner with the most dialogue is actually Coach Jim Harbaugh, channeling his inner-Gordon Bombay circa D2: The Mighty Ducks.

This year’s 49ers got to the Super Bowl thanks to a balanced attack mirrored in Visa’s ad. It’s also refreshing to see a coach in a commercial with his guys instead of the standard I-never-smile-and-hate-everyone expression most coaches wear for their media appearances. There is a selflessness that would seem strange for most of the other NFL franchises.

We’ve seen this type of socialistic branding before—the ’85 Chicago Bears had “The Super Bowl Shuffle” right before their championship victory, and the song even became a top-50 Billboard single. But after that season, after the team became a bunch of individuals, the Bears didn’t win another playoff game for three years.

To be clear, I don’t care who wins the Super Bowl, although I think the 49ers will win because they are the better team. Vegas agrees with me, making San Francisco 3.5-point favorites over the Ravens. I’m a New York Giants, and I’ve seen how “the disease of more” can turn a championship team into an underachieving group of guys who care too much about Q ratings. Eli Manning popped up in a few too many ads for Toyota, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Citizen Watch. Victor Cruz trumped him and won the 2012 award for Overexposed Athlete of the Year. The Giants didn’t make the playoffs.

After Green Bay won the Super Bowl two years ago, Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and Greg Jennings made themselves available to any Fortune 500 company that would pay them to smile at the camera. More money, no rings. Sound familiar?

If the 49ers win, there will be plenty of time for swelled egos and Kaepernick trademarking. If the Ravens win, Ray Lewis will ride off to the sunset, presumably with a bearded Paul Rudd by his side. But for now, there is a clear distinction between the teams, and that dynamic could play out as the deciding factor in Super Bowl XLVII.

Who knew credit card commercials could be so important?

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