The Changing Landscape of Super Bowl Commercials

Tonight, the New England Patriots will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. People all across the United States will head to crowded bars or house parties to watch the most anticipated football game of the year. Last year, 112 million people tuned in to watch the New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons. That is a lot of eyeballs. While ratings are definitely helped out by marquee, big market teams such as the Patriots, New York Giants, or even Dallas Cowboys playing in the big game, the Super Bowl is consistently one of the most watched television programs of the year and has become ingrained in American society.

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While the teams on the field are ultimately why most people tune in, there is a significant portion of people who watch the Super Bowl strictly for the commercials. In fact, in games such as Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, most morning shows the next day dedicated most of their air time to talk about the most memorable commercials, such as Budweiser’s Puppy Love commercial that aired late in the Seahawks’ blowout win.

Most major companies for the past few decades have poured millions of dollars into creating advertising campaigns based off of their Super Bowl ads. A 30 second ad spot for Super Bowl LII tonight on NBC will cost around $5 million, which begs the question: is it even worth it? In today’s entertainment climate, television networks are trying to find unique ways to keep their viewer’s eyeballs on the screen during commercial breaks, as the price they can charge for air-time will start to decrease if it’s determined that advertisers are not getting their money’s worth. This has become ever so present in live sporting events, as people use commercial breaks as an opportunity to get a beer from the fridge or make a trip to the bathroom. The rise of Twitter has also had an impact on viewers staying tuned in for commercials, as the social media outlet allows user to engage with other fans, get insight from analysts about what’s happening on the field, or even watch replays.

So how can companies combat this shift in viewing habits? Well, it has actually already started. Over the past few years, companies have began releasing either clips or full-length videos of their upcoming Super Bowl commercials on their various social media platforms. Last week, Amazon released a preview for their commercial about the Amazon Echo, in which Alexa loses her voice. Just a few days ago, Amazon released the entire full-length commerical, which features celebrities such as Gordon Ramsay and Cardi B taking over for Alexa on users’ devices.

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M&M’s has also opted for a similar strategy to that implored by Amazon. The company first released a 15 second teaser starring Danny Devito, only to release the full-length commercial later in the week.

This new strategy begs the question: why are companies paying all of this money for a Super Bowl ad when they are releasing the commercial ahead of time? Part of what made Super Bowl ads exciting in the past was that they were brand new, never before seen by the viewing audience. Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, believes that a good commercial can actually receive additional buzz because if a person likes the ad when he or she views it ahead of time, when they are watching the Super Bowl, it could become a topic of conversation with friends. This conversation could then turn into an interest by the viewing audience to stay engaged during commercial breaks in order to see the ad when it airs during the game.

While I see the point trying to be made here by Calkins, I simply can’t buy it. I think that the impact of Super Bowl ads is a massive overstatement created by the television networks in order to gouge for airtime during the game. In the pre-social media days, most viewers watched the commercials because there wasn’t much else to do. Now, instead of watching the commercials, I can text my friends to get their opinions of the game, I can go on Twitter to release my frustration or read other people’s venting tweets, or I can check my various sports apps for different insights and analysis. I didn’t even get to mentioning Snapchat, the introduction of Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, and the multitude of other ways that we absorb content nowadays.

While giant companies such as Amazon can continue paying millions of dollars for airtime and not see it affect their bottom line, I think that companies should take a hard look at what Skittles planned for its Super Bowl commercial this year. After airing an ad during the Super Bowl for the past three years, Skittles decided to create a Super Bowl commercial that will only be viewed by one person during the game. Fans will be able to go on Facebook Live during the Super Bowl to watch 17 year old Marcos Menendez’s reaction to the Skittles commercial. This unconventional PR stunt is far less costly than a regular Super Bowl ad and included teasers leading up to tonight’s airing. Skittles has uniquely found a way to still be a part of the Super Bowl ad excitement while only paying a fraction of the price, rather choosing to leverage a popular platform in Facebook Live. If this goes well for Skittles, we could see many smaller but well known companies opt to go a route like this in future Super Bowls.

As a lifelong Patriots fan, I have usually paid a lot more attention to the actual game than the commercials. The commercials are often my time to detox. Even in years when the Patriots have not been playing in the game, I have always been less than excited to watch the heavily anticipated ad spots. Given that a lot of ad exposure is tied to the reaction on social media, I think it has become even more difficult for companies to measure whether their multi-million dollar investment on Super Bowl Sunday is even worth it. I don’t think the craze around Super Bowl commercials will ever go away because it has become a way for people who are not die-hard football fans to find a reason to tune in.

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However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the prices for the Super Bowl spots in the next few years to either stagnate or begin to slightly decrease. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the NFL this season regarding National Anthem protests and the constant concern about concussions. Many experts believe that these factors have had an impact on declining viewership this season, but it is yet to be seen whether that will spill over into the biggest game of the season. I don’t think it will, but if it does, it could begin to change the landscape of advertising for the biggest game of the year.

7 comments

  1. The answer to why companies are paying an enormous amount of money for Super Bowl ads to then be aired prior to all of the Super Bowl festivities is quite simple. It boils down to “Share of Market = Share of Voice.” It’s become a rat race for companies to not only capture new market share, but defend it as well. For example, Nike may run a new ad campaign promoting its athletes in the NBA. Shortly after, Adidas and Under Armour respond with ads of their own. Failure to spend money on attracting new business can adversely affect a companies position within their industry. Thus, the same applies throughout the Super Bowl. That said, I agree that I am also not convinced this strategy is effective or game-changing. Super commercials have become just as much of a spectacle as the game itself. If commercials are released ahead of time, then what is there to talk about, or even laugh about given that some viewers may not watch them ahead of time. Companies won’t have a bigger stage than the Super Bowl to promote and sell viewers on their products, so why not go all out? The odds of a commercial going viral are much higher.

    “Hey, did you guys see that snickers commercial last week referencing last night’s Super Bowl….nope.” Insert cricket sounds here_____.

  2. Great post and thanks for those interesting ideas, I agree with your point that Superbowl ads is an overstatement because many people are looking at their phones in the airtime during the game.

    But I think the reason why such company as Amazon paid so much for their commercial is that Superbowl is becoming a symbol, and they have to spend money and play their commercial to show their dominance in the market. Superbowl has become one of the most important events in the U.S, the best team will win the title, and the best artist will perform in the halftime break. Superbowl gives people an impression of high-class, and I think this one of the reasons that Amazon spends so much on Superbowl commercial to show their dominance in the market.

  3. Molly Pighini · ·

    I think this is a very interesting blog post, especially in light of our required reading for the week, “Branding in the Digital Age.” The article highlights the way in which customer interaction with brands has shifted in recent years. While customers still want a clear brand promise and offerings of value, they have changed the way in which they make purchase decisions. Subsequently, brands must influence and interact with customers in different ways and at different points in their buying journey.

    The article argues for a new marketing strategy, focused on this journey, shifting spend away from the traditional “consider and buy” period toward what it calls the “evaluate and enjoy-advocate-bond stages.” Similar to your argument, Dan, this would seem to diminish the value of Super Bowl commercials that cost millions of dollars, as it is a fairly traditional form of marketing. I would argue, however, that Super Bowl commercials are a bit different than the typical TV commercial. Due to the social prominence of the event, I believe commercials aired during the Super Bowl are a means for companies to “advocate and bond” with their customers. These commercials have the potential to become a point of conversation and interaction (as well as an impetus for extended campaigns as you pointed out), building a deeper customer-brand connection.

  4. I think you make some really compelling points about the lack of value-add these Super Bowl commercials may have in the context of how much they cost. I tend to agree with you about most commercials, but I actually found myself engrossed in the commercials during the game and still find myself talking about some of them. As I was reading tweets about the game, I also found myself reading tweets about the commercials – whether about the Ram commercial’s use of MLK’s voice or Tide’s genius ad.

    I think the Super Bowl ads embody a look into the future of commercials and brand engagement. So many commercials during the game were about corporate citizenship or the social good. Budweiser discussed providing water to areas of the US, and other companies such as Toyota and T Mobile worked to appeal to human emotion and beliefs. I think these represent a shift in people’s expectations of companies to not just maximize shareholder value but consider the larger environment and community. I also think Tide’s commercial represented a shift, as they included many short commercials throughout the game and created a story line that is still being talked about today.

  5. I agree with your point of how it seems to be a waste that companies are showing their Super Bowl commercials ahead of time. I remember when I was little I didn’t really watch football (no one in my family really did), but I remember all of us sitting down every year to watch the commercials. And we would talk about them for days.
    Now it seems like the commercials have become secondary. They’re no longer really all that funny or interesting as compared to how they used to be when I was little. And companies have to pay more every year for a 30 second spot.
    I don’t think prices are going to go down because if some companies decide that they do not want to pay the ridiculous amount of money for the air time, someone else will. Then they’ll lose market share in people’s eyes.

  6. Interesting post. I confess that I had a similar idea about the relative value of a commercial. Nevertheless, the best ad campaigns are often a combination of digital and traditional. It actually may become even MORE valuable because a) people dont skip through them and b) it reaches a high diversity of viewers, unlike more niche content today. We’ll see!

  7. I really liked this blog post, though it was tough as a Patriots fan to read after the Superbowl. Your post made me think about how commercials in the last year or two have as a whole become less funny and more emotional. You have ones like the Tmobile ad with the babies or the horribly botched ram ad with the mlk speech. Many companies go for this type of ad rather than just going funny. I thought that maybe this could be because they know people are seeing the ads online before the Superbowl. Something usually isn’t as funny the second time but a moving commercial may still move people the second time around, especially if people have had time to think about it. This could be the reason for the shift in commercial content. I suppose this would avoid the issue of devaluing the Superbowl commercials as well! Great post, definitely got me thinking.

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