The 2000 Britannica.com Super Bowl Ad

Lessons for higher ed?

July 19, 2015
The Britannica.com Super Bowl ad “Questions” ran in the 3rd quarter of the 2000 Super Bowl.   You can watch the 30 second ad here.
The ad costs $2.1 million.  The ad consisted solely of written questions superimposed on a black screen.  
“who keeps the coin after the toss?”
 “how do Houston and L.A. fans feel right now?”
“what do refs do the rest of the week?”
“what exactly is a titan?”
“where do Buffalo wings come from?”
The britannica.com logo then appeared, with the tagline what’s on your mind?”
Th ad was universally panned and quickly forgotten.  AdAge gave the ad 1.5 Stars.
Variety said that Britannica needed to “rethink its onscreen queries.
I’ve written before about the years that I worked for Britannica.com: What Higher Ed Can Learn from Encyclopaedia Britannica and LecturesOnline and BritannicaU.
To this day, I’m haunted by how quickly the cultural relevancy of a brand like Britannica can evaporate. The story of Britannica, and my own minor role in its failure to adapt to the end of information scarcity, holds a perhaps outsized influence in how I think about the future of higher education.
The 2000 Britannica.com Super Bowl ad was as clear a signal as possible that this once great company had lost its way. The core values of the Britannica, and the reasons why the Britannica brand embodied so much value, were nowhere in evidence in the 2000 Super Bowl Ad. Rather than make the case for the value of quality, depth, and integrity - the 2000 Britannica Super Bowl ad pandered to the (perceived) desire for the superficial and the instant.  
The lessons of the 2000 Britannica Super Bowl ad, and the larger Britannica story, are perhaps not always straightforward for higher ed. 
Many will ask what Britannica could have done in the face of the Wikipedia juggernaut, the explosion of free online information, and the substitution of digital for print as the dominant information delivery and consumption method.  
The answer is that Britannica confused the need to change how it delivered its core product (the move from print to digital was inevitable), with how its core product (high quality content) should change. Britannica could have doubled down on its content - on the quality and completeness of its articles and entries.  Britannica could have then found some way to leverage the affordances of digital to connect its core product with an audience. 
The lesson for higher ed, I think, is that we should not let the digital revolution sway us from our core values and practices. We should be clear that the value of higher education derives from the quality of our educators, and the personal teaching relationships that our educators build with our learners. We should invest in our faculty. We should do everything we can to remove scarcities around learning. We should discover our future by understanding what has made us truly valuable today.
What higher ed lessons do you take from the Britannica 2000 Super Bowl ad?
What stories from other companies and industries can we learn from as we seek to navigate the digital in charting our higher ed future?


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