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Why Super Bowl ads still matter in the streaming age

January 31, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

As the former editor of AdAge, a marketing industry trade magazine, I still get a twitch in my eye the week before the Super Bowl. The NFL’s championship game has long been considered the biggest event on the U.S. advertising calendar by broadcasters, marketers, and the ad agencies who make spots. But is it still true?

Last year’s Super Bowl saw the lowest viewership in 11 years. The lower viewership was linked to a variety of factors: It was “so boring” said USA Today. Boycotts due to officiating issues played a part, said the New York Times. Or, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote last year, the game faces the dual threats of a population less interested in football and an “advertising culture that jeopardizes the Super Bowl’s identity.”

But despite the lower ratings, it still crushed the competition. With 98.2 million viewers, the 2019 game was the No. 1 broadcast of a year in which around 75% of the top 100 broadcast were NFL games, according to AdAge. Another 2.6 million people, on average, watched on streaming services said CBS, which also carried all of the national ads running in the game. 

That’s millions of people in a down year—and yes, millennials and Gen-Zers are among those numbers. So are more than 50% of Hispanic households in the U.S., and female viewership of the game has been around 46% to 47%, according to Nielsen. 

In other words, despite the broader changes in advertising and TV, the Super Bowl is one of the last true mass marketing events. That’s likely why major marketers pony up for the most expensive ad space on TV. This year’s Super Bowl broadcaster, Fox, is charging $5.6 million for 30 seconds of ad time, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Factor in celebrity endorsers, pyrotechnics, talking animals, or CGI and that adds up to what some marketers might spend in a year. 

In fact, in 2015 Henkel’s glue brand Loctite did just that, spending its entire TV marketing budget on one Super Bowl ad. The brand saw a sales lift as a result—interestingly, so did the rest of the glue category, according to AdAge.

For marketers who can afford it, a Super Bowl ad would seem like a no-brainer. What better place to launch a new product line, roll out next year’s hottest car, tease an upcoming blockbuster, or engage in some purpose-driven marketing to burnish the brand image? On top of that, the ad portion of the Super Bowl has become such a spectacle, marketers can milk millions of dollars of impressions by announcing the fact that they bought an ad, releasing teasers for their ads, or revealing their ads on a morning talk show in the weeks leading up to the game.

The Super Bowl ad itself has now become just one part of a much larger multi-faceted effort, the anchor for PR pushes, digital efforts, and social-media tie-ins. Some marketers use the spot as a launching pad for the entire year’s marketing campaign. (And viewers now make a habit of revisiting their favorite spots online before and after the game.)

Spending that kind of money to garner that sort of spotlight does come with risks, of course. 

There’s the clutter. AdWeek predicts around 50 commercials will run for this year’s game. Some categories are more crowded than others. Snack and auto brands always seem to have heavy representation, so those categories lend themselves to the Super Bowl ad arms race, in which brands have to outdo one another. Those in less-crowded categories feel less pressure. 

Then there’s the viewing audience. Yes, there are 100 million people watching. But how many of them are drinking heavily, dissecting the play right before the commercial break, tweeting about the halftime show, or wondering what the heck just happened in the previous ad? After decades of what seemed like wall-to-wall action and humor ads, a few brands came into the game with quieter, longer spots that made people lean in (like Chrysler’s two-minute “Born of Fire” ad that featured a gospel choir covering Eminem). That approach is no longer unique as it once was, but it’s still effective, especially for marketers engaging in purpose-driven marketing.

There’s also the possibility of a flop. A marketer’s ad could score poorly on the USA Today AdMeter. It could invoke social-media wrath and wide-scale mockery. It could end up on a worst-ads-of-all-time list. None are optimal after dropping over $5 million.

But it’s clear that many marketers, big and small, see the risks as worth it. 

Over time, Americans may lose interest in the Super Bowl, but it hasn’t happened yet. And digital media now provides marketers more efficient ways to reach highly-targeted audiences to drive sales and conversions. But for now, the game still provides the sort of audience that marketers used to take for granted—100 million people, all leaning in to the same thing, at the same time.

Ken Wheaton is the former editor of AdAge and is now an editorial consultant. He is also the author of The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival, Bacon & Egg Man, and Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears. 

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