Why Is the Super Bowl an Ad Jamboree?

By Mark Tungate

Most experts agree that it started with Apple. Or to be precise, with an ad you may well have heard of, called “1984”.

Created by Chiat\Day and directed by Ridley Scott, it heralded the launch of the Apple Macintosh. Big, bold and an apparent dig at stolid IBM – although Apple denied this – it looked more like a blockbuster movie than a commercial.

With the launch of the Macintosh, the endline promised, “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”

Not only did it grab eyeballs – it worked. Initial sales of the Mac were 40 percent above projections, and 70,000 of the computers were shifted in the first 100 days after launch, Adweek reported a year later.

The spot set a trend for “event advertising” and established a benchmark for Super Bowl ads to come. Commercials were no longer a distraction from the big game, but an integral part of the experience.

Today, of course, a live broadcast that convinces millions of people to huddle around their TV sets and actually pay attention to the ads is vanishingly rare.

In fact the Super Bowl may well be unique – which is why brands continue to shovel truckloads of dollars at it.

The Bowl by the numbers

According to Statistica.com, the average cost of a 30-second Super Bowl spot last year was 6.5 million dollars. The game was watched by more than 98 million viewers (short of the record at just over 114 million in 2015).

Statistica also reports that, according to its own 2020 survey, “79 percent of viewers see the commercials as entertainment, while almost 71 percent stated that they enjoyed watching the commercials.”

Not only that, but the ads have staying power. As they’re often revealed in advance, people watch them before, during and after the game.

Here’s Statistica again: “During the 2019 Super Bowl, consumers spent 641 thousand hours watching Super Bowl ads on YouTube, representing a 58 percent increase over the previous year.”

As Brittaney Kiefer, Europe Creative Editor of Adweek, puts it:

“The Super Bowl is one of those rare moments when the average person who doesn’t work in advertising cares about what adland journalists cover on a daily basis.

And when appointment TV is also a rarity, we get to sit down with the rest of the public for a shared cultural moment.

Though Super Bowl advertising doesn’t always represent the best of the sector, it’s a good gauge of public opinion and culture: who’s in or out, which brands have something to say, and how people react to their creative punts.

There are always a few surprises, and it encourages brands and agencies to raise the bar.”

This year, a survey of just over 1,000 US adults by Marketing Brew and Harris Poll suggested that TV audience figures may be on the rise again.

In addition, “76 percent of likely viewers say they are ‘somewhat excited’ for the ads” – astonishingly, even more than the 71 per cent who are excited about the halftime show (source: WARC).

An all-American event?

The Super Bowl itself has been around for a little longer than Apple. The final playoff game of the National Football League has existed since 1966, when it replaced the NFL Championship Game.

(If you want to get really granular, the NFL was established in 1920 and until 1932 the champion was the team with the season’s best record.

After a series of ties, a single playoff was introduced in 1933, hence the Championship Game.)

The Super Bowl was first broadcast in 1967, when according to WARC an advertising spot cost 42,000 dollars (the equivalent of 398,000 dollars today, interestingly enough).

But although it’s a hugely popular event, it’s also a fundamentally American one, lacking the international image of the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games.

Nonetheless, it’s broadcast on channels all over the world – from ESPN in Australia to Sky Sports in the UK – and has a healthy audience of 30 to 50 million outside the US, according to Statistica.

But compare that to this year’s World Cup tournament, which FIFA says attracted total worldwide viewership of 1.5 billion. The final alone in 2018 attracted a record 1.1 billion viewers.

The NFL has certainly made efforts to enter overseas markets. In 2007 it launched the International Series, which started with just one game in London.

Since then, according to The Sporting News, “31 of the NFL’s 32 teams have taken the field in another country, with games played in London and Mexico City.”

Last year Germany hosted its first NFL game.

A magnet for talent

For the time being, though, the Super Bowl’s core appeal remains on its home turf, where it will likely attract ad dollars for years to come.

And from an advertising professional’s point of view, it will continue to provide a gallery for a certain type of spot.

“The Super Bowl still matters,” confirms Alexandra Jardine, Executive Editor Creativity and UK Editor, Ad Age.

“It’s when brands bring out the big guns. The ads they launch there might be their biggest budget marketing efforts of the year, or mark the launches of their newest product or strategy change.

While sometimes the creative in recent years has been skewed towards the bombastic or celebrity-centric, the fact still remains that it’s a space in which brands are jostling for attention, so agencies will put their best efforts into ensuring memorability and engagement, and their best talent into making it.

“It’s always interesting to see what brands bring to the table at the Super Bowl.”

With that – let the show begin.


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