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Super Bowl viewership has been stagnating for years as various forms of digital media disrupt traditional viewing habits. That’s not to suggest the game’s audience is small—at about 101 million viewers, it was by far the most-viewed television broadcast in the United States last year. But even though that represents a rebound from the 92 million people who watched Super Bowl LV in 2021, it’s well off the average of more than 111 million who tuned in every year from 2011 to 2017. Also, if you consider that Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez can each reach over 370 million followers with a single Instagram post, or that James Charles’s TikTok about a Christmas party was viewed 1.9 billion times—well, the reach of the Super Bowl broadcast starts to seem less impressive. In fact, the top 30 influencers on Instagram each have more followers than the Super Bowl has viewers.
Nonetheless, Fox, the network broadcasting this year’s game, was able to sell 95 percent of the ad space for the game by early September despite some 30-second spots going for upwards of $7 million, a record. In fact, over the past 10 years or so, there seems to be a weirdly inverse relationship between how much it costs to air a Super Bowl ad and how many viewers you can expect to reach: the cost of a 30-second ad has roughly doubled, while the addressable audience has dropped 9 percent. Why would the demand for Super Bowl advertising increase even as viewership wavers? What drives both large and small brands to bet the proverbial farm on the Big Game, and how can they be sure that they get the most out of this investment?
More money, fewer eyeballs
There are three primary reasons advertisers still pay top dollar for Super Bowl ads. First, willingness to pay for these ads has always been about more than the game itself—the cultural currency surrounding the Super Bowl can provide immediate relevancy for brands prepared to pay for it. Brand awareness is generally bought and paid for at any time of year—any ad geek will tell you it is as simple as getting your ad in front of the right people an optimal number of times. But brand relevance is much trickier because it requires your audience to see a product as an important part of their lives. There is no mathematical formula that can generate that—it requires both guts and intuition on the part of a marketer.
Because the Big Game can provide cultural relevance on a scale unreachable by any other event in the US, many Super Bowl advertisers are willing to bet a large portion of their marketing budgets on the hope that all of the conversations in and around the Super Bowl will lend their brand credibility and cultural relevance. The Super Bowl has launched brands into iconic status—both Apple’s “1984” ad, directed by Ridley Scott, as well as last year’s five-second ad for Coinbase (featuring a single QR code) brought their respective brands into public consciousness in a way that’s hard to put a price on.
Speaker 1: Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the information purification directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thought.
Our unification of thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on Earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Now, our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion.
We shall prevail.
Speaker 2: On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984."
The second reason marketers still invest in Super Bowl advertising involves the channel fragmentation brought about by digital media. Because no single media channel can usually fit the needs of a large brand, marketers must tie messaging in disparate channels around a single big idea or event. This coordination can be difficult to achieve without a “tentpole” anchor that gives cohesion and purpose to a brand message across media touchpoints. Whereas previous Super Bowl advertisers may have viewed their commercial as a stand-alone creative execution, today’s marketers correctly see their Super Bowl advertisement as just the tip of the iceberg. The $14 million they pay for the airtime will increase the return on millions of dollars of investment in paid search, programmatic ad buys, partnerships, social media, and other marketing efforts. Not only will the awareness generated by the Super Bowl ad enhance the efficiency of other creative executions, but it will also force the marketing teams and associated agencies to focus on the “big idea” behind the ad, helping tie together the concepts expressed in other channels.
Third, we live in a world where consumers generally distrust traditional advertising but trust messages from influencers—even if those influencers are paid to promote products. In fact, 61 percent of consumers trust influencers when they recommend products, as opposed to 38 percent who trust brand-produced content such as traditional ads. The Super Bowl allows brands to leverage that dynamic by featuring mega-influencers in their commercials as well as on their social channels and in their PR strategy. For example, this year the online gambling company FanDuel is running a live Super Bowl commercial featuring former NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski kicking a field goal in real time. Anyone who has placed a bet with FanDuel will win a share of a $10 million prize if he makes the field goal.
This execution could be the template for future Super Bowl ads, as it leverages the relationship Gronkowski naturally has with an American football audience (he’s a four-time Super Bowl champion); it reinforces the “win in real time” value proposition of FanDuel; and it is already soaking up millions of unpaid media impressions, which builds buzz ahead of the commercial itself. Super Bowl advertisers, who have always used celebrities, will continue to shift toward cutting-edge influencer marketing strategies across their paid, owned, and earned channels before, during, and after the game.
What makes a Super Bowl ad successful?
Along with the big opportunities they represent, Super Bowl ads carry considerable risk. The heightened exposure the game offers also increases the chance of a high-profile (and expensive) flop or gaffe. Several Big Game ads have underwhelmed audiences and may have damaged their associated brands with highly visible missteps, such as the 2007 “GM - Robot” ad, which General Motors had to pull after activists accused the company of being insensitive to blue-collar suicide.
How can marketers mitigate this risk while realizing the huge upside of a modern, digitally focused Super Bowl campaign? I recommend going back to basics. Since the days of radio, successful advertising has delivered on two metrics: it is memorable (promotes recall) and it is persuasive. Most Super Bowl ads seem designed to generate as much recall as possible—this template generally involves a celebrity who gets into a ridiculous situation somehow related to the brand. (About 75 percent of Super Bowl ads follow this model, including 2022 ads from Amazon, Lay’s, and Bud Light). Agencies prefer this strategy because paying up for the right celebrity is sure to generate conversations and help consumers remember the ad, particularly when it comes to those “Best Ads of the Super Bowl” rankings (which help agencies justify their high price tag). However, usually the connection to the product benefit is unclear, which reduces the ROI for the sponsoring brand.
The very best Super Bowl ads focus on persuasion at least as much as they focus on recall. Procter & Gamble, which avoided the Super Bowl for years, has since demonstrated how to use classic brand-management principles with Super Bowl ads that have generated buzz as well as business results, spots that are memorable as well as persuasive. For example, the Tide ad that ran during the 2013 Super Bowl—which featured the San Francisco 49ers playing the Baltimore Ravens—focused on a fan who found fame and fortune when he spilled salsa on his 49ers jersey and ended up with a stain that looked exactly like legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana. Eventually the man’s wife (a Ravens fan) washed the jersey with Tide, and the “miracle stain” came out. Not only was the ad timely and funny, but it was also solidly rooted in Tide’s product benefit—the ad closed with “No stain is sacred.”
Speaker 1: Yes. Oh.
Speaker 2: Dude, you got Montana on your jersey. Joe Montana.
Speaker 1: It is. It's a miracle stain.
Speaker 2: I can see the miracle.
Speaker 1: It's a miracle stain.
Speaker 2: I can see the miracle.
Speaker 1: Baby, I got a Montana miracle stain on my shirt.
Speaker 3: There's been a lot of talk about a miracle stain.
Speaker 1: And then I was holding my chip like this, and it dropped.
Speaker 4: Is that real?
Speaker 5: Yeah. It's real.
Speaker 6: Crazy.
Speaker 1: 49ers.
Speaker 6: The miracle Montana stain is sweeping the nation.
Speaker 7: People from all over the world are flocking to get a glimpse of what some 49ers fans are hoping could be a Super Bowl miracle.
Speaker 8: I saw the stain.
Speaker 1: All right.
Speaker 9: Look. Right here. $20.00.
Speaker 10: Here we go. Stain on a stick.
Speaker 1: Montanaland. Where's my 49ers jersey?
Speaker 11: Oh. I washed it.
Speaker 1: You washed it?
Speaker 11: It had a stain on it.
Speaker 1: Ugh. Oo.
Speaker 11: Go Ravens.
Speaker 1: Joe, where'd you go?
For brands that forget these principles, Super Bowl airtime can be an expensive mistake. But for those with a solid strategy not just for their ad, but for the way the ad will complement or even coordinate with their other marketing efforts, it presents a unique opportunity, even today. The investment such an ad requires is only growing with time, but if you have the means to play, the Big Game remains a chance for a big marketing win.
Tom Hafen is adjunct professor of marketing at Chicago Booth.
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