Canadians might love the Super Bowl, but we hate the commercials.
Not the commercials you get to watch. I’m talking about the ones we get stuck with in Canada. Sunday’s game was carried by CTV, which carried the NBC feed. But thanks to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission—the government agency charged with regulating the TV airwaves—the rights-holding network is allowed to simultaneously substitute (“sim sub”) the American feed (and commercials) with a Canadian one.
What does that mean? I watched the game here in Vancouver and logged all the advertisements. When America got an overproduced Bud Light Platinum ad, British Columbia got a lightly droll spot for a domestic IPA, Alexander Keith’s. Around the time America was watching John Stamos peddle Greek yogurt, British Columbia was learning about job creation and infrastructure. Shortly after America watched a joyful promo for NBC shows such as Community, British Columbia watched a local advertisement for—I kid you not—an actual community college.
The CRTC does this to build an exclusive market for advertisers. Or, as its website states, “By replacing American ads with Canadian ads, advertising money is generated in the Canadian market.”
So on Super Bowl Sunday, instead of seeing the fruits of millions of dollars worth of creative and technological talent, we got CTV’s idea of Canadian exceptionalism: an uninspired rotation of relatively low-rent advertising—$5 footlongs and a Dairy Queen spot that first aired in September and, at one point in the fourth quarter, back-to-back-to-back commercials for McDonald’s. It’s not fair: These were conventionally bad commercials on a day when the rest of the continent got to enjoy the opulently terrible.
The ads weren’t all stale this year. New American Samsung, H&M, and Fiat commercials all made it to air, as did movie trailers for Battleship and The Avengers. And Hyundai joined Alexander Keith’s and Bud (the much-loved flash hockey crowd ad) with Canada-specific Super Bowl ads. (In Hyundai’s case, Canada-specific meant sasquatch stomping out of the coniferous biome to gawk at a Genesis Coupe.)
Still, it’s hard to shake that feeling that Canada is the guy at the Super Bowl party stuck all game long in a dull conversation over by the bean dip. There’s little doubt that we want to see the American ads. The CRTC certainly know this and even posts an explanation for the annual Canadian Super Bowl commercial let-down to its website. Cable providers used to brag about hosting the pure U.S. feed, and local bars showed the game in “American HD.” But then CTV pushed the government to enforce the sim-sub rules, and the national feed took over.
The sim-sub policy makes money for the rights-holding network, but it also frustrates the millions of Canadian cable subscribers who choose to pay extra to receive American channels and understandably want to watch what they’ve paid for.
Of course, the commercials everyone wants to see are all available online after the game. But it’s hard to blame Canadian viewers for being upset at having to sift through dozens of YouTube videos for the same payoff Americans got hours earlier without even reaching for the remote.
And if keeping the ads from us wasn’t bad enough, Canadian networks always find new ways to botch the sim-sub process: cutting to the action late, shoe-horning their own graphics into broadcasts, dropping the HD feed, and generally making a high school A.V. club hash of the entire production.
After last year’s game, CTV memorably cut to one of its studio sports anchors, Jay Onrait, just as Roger Goodell passed the Lombardi trophy to Packer executives. Onrait looked like nothing so much as Canada’s most disappointed father. The moment was perfect in its imperfection. I’d like to think that, in that instant, Onrait’s death stare was the death stare of every Super Bowl viewer above the 49th parallel.