The Super Bowl of Norms


by Howell J. Malham Jr.


We all know what we did Super Bowl Sunday.

It’s what we always do on Super Bowl Sunday:

We stocked the fridge with beer. We made chili. We cracked open bags of chips and tubs of dip.  We tuned every one of the flatscreens in our homes to the designated channel.

And we let the party — the Super Bowl party — begin.

This behavior isn't mandated by law. Not yet anyway. It's driven by a norm.

Super Bowl Sunday in America is not only the Super Bowl of the National Football League, it's the Super Bowl of Norms, those powerful, invisible forces that influence the expectations of what we should do and what we should not do in the eyes of people who matter to us.

For years, we've seen others comply with the norms on Super Bowl Sunday. And we think others expect us to comply with it.

So, we comply. Even if we don't like chili, or beer, or chips and dip. 

Or football, for that matter.


Because in the long run “getting with the program” (i.e. getting with the social norm) takes less work, or so we think. It requires fewer explanations to friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors, and comes with fewer headaches but not fewer hangovers.

Interestingly, ratings are sagging for the big game, compared to days of old, but the social norms related to Super Bowl Sunday — like pounding a lot of beer — persist.

Many Americans don’t even know they actually have a choice when it comes to deciding what they should be doing on Super Bowl Sunday. And how they should be doing it. They don’t until they meet someone who is doing something other than watching the game — someone who is openly opposing the norm.

Only then does it become apparent that there is another way to think about how we engage, or don’t engage, with one another on Super Bowl Sunday.

Interestingly, ratings are sagging for the big game, compared to days of old, but the social norms related to Super Bowl Sunday — like pounding a lot of beer — persist.

In fact, they’re stronger than ever when we look at beer sales in America. Citing more than one source, Men’s Journal reported that we “Americans slug 325.5 million gallons of beer on Super Bowl Sunday.

“If you believe this number…every man, woman, and child — all 316 million of us — would have to drink just over a gallon of the good stuff. That’s 128 ounces, or about 10 cans.”

If one chooses to transgress the norms of Super Bowl Sunday by enjoying Super Bowl Sunday at an art museum, for example; or by binge watching episodes of “Ancient Aliens” instead of rallying around the big game like a telegenic maypole, one can pay a heavy price in some social circles: criticism, ridicule, even harassment.

The secondary ritual of "just watching for the commercials" is, in fact, a response from those who don’t like to watch football, and who simply cannot withstand the social sanctions that come with deviating from the norm and doing something else on Super Bowl Sunday — something that has nothing whatsoever to do with Super Bowl Sunday.

Yet we need deviators. They’re the ones who remind the rest of us that we’re being constrained, socially, by powerful and influential norms. They’re the ones who also lead the way to a place beyond the known, beyond the expected.

What is progress if not one deviation from the norm after another?

Though it didn’t subvert the norm of buying a spot for the big game, as beer companies are expected to do, Bud Light did pull a rather deviant move within the context of the spectacle: They partnered with HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to kill the Bud Knight campaign before millions of viewers…by killing the Bud Knight. Literally.

It wasn’t just the best commercial of the big game; it was the most deviant. That is, it was the one that strayed the most from the corporate norms of advertising. And it was a giant leap forward for how advertisers think about, talk about, engage with the expectations related to ad campaigns — and how to dispose of them — in the future.

There are risks and rewards associated with non-compliance of norms: like killing off a successful beer (campaign) before its time; or binge-watching “Ancient Aliens” on Super Bowl Sunday instead of watching the big game — and admitting as much to your friends and coworkers; or designing a new model of social engagement altogether that transcends the conventional.

The, risks, however, are mitigated when we realize that progress will not occur without a little deviation from the norm now and then. ::

Howell Malham