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March (Marketing) Madness

March. Basketball. It’s the time of year when terms like “boss button” and “bracket busters” are everywhere. Each year, in late March, millions of people tune in to watch young athletes play not for money, but for pride. For the love of the game. To bring glory to the schools they represent. It is also the time of year when companies large and small spend millions of dollars to strategically place their ads in small blips of time known as “TV timeouts.” Like that last second fade away jump shot, what companies do with those precious seconds can determine the level of success they experience.

On average, there are close to twenty minutes of commercials per forty-minute game. That’s the equivalent of another half of basketball dedicated to marketing. If you factor in 15 minutes for halftime, during which additional commercials air, the exposure increases. We March Madness fans unite around a culture built on both competition and consumerism. We choose to watch and to react to what we see, routing fiercely for our teams and buying what’s being sold. It is an accepted norm that we will spend hours in front of the TV, digesting the media blitz of products and services. In 2015, $1.19 billion was spent on advertising during the NCAA Tournament. The tournament has turned into the ultimate marketing platform. And, in doing so, it has developed a brand identity of its own.

I was watching the tournament games last week and noticed the way players represented their schools. ­I was aware of the ways that the school colors and logos created a “show” of their own. And what a simple “V” or an “S” or “O” represented for players from Villanova, Syracuse, and Oregon. A letter can create an identity for a player or a sense of loyalty for a fan; both have chosen to “sell” or “buy “ the product – the team. Similarly, the 30-second commercials, if done well, unite the verbal and the visual in the same way. They create an emotional as well as a logical response (“I love driving + that car is reasonably priced = I should buy that car”), much like the logo and colors of a university create a response—especially in March.

If all commercials that aired during March Madness were as profoundly influential as intended, I would buy a new Buick, drink a Coke, go to the movies, and order pizza after every game. And that would be the ultimate marketing success story.