Even at $5m each, Super Bowl ads make sense – here’s why

Those who highlight what digital media you could buy for the same price as a Super Bowl ad miss the point – they offer unrivalled effectiveness among the largest of audiences.

super bowl advertisingI swore I would not do it. Told myself for weeks that it would be that most hoary of clichés and that I should not even consider working on such a thing.

So here it is: a column about Super Bowl advertising in the immediate aftermath of Superbowl LIII.

The topic is irresistible, despite its predictability, for one simple reason. Here we are entering 2019 with an ever-increasing emphasis on short-term, personalised, always-on digital communications. And yet, for all that, a 30-second spot on linear TV continues to represent the zenith of advertising execution for most big companies.

And – to make things even more contradictory – along with the usual mega brands like Coke and Budweiser, who have made the Super Bowl their commercial home this time of year, there were a host of digital brands also promoting their wares during Sunday’s game.

READ MORE: Less politics, more female power: What to expect from this year’s Super Bowl ads

The likes of Microsoft and Amazon have long been portrayed as the enemies of traditional linear TV and yet here were both of them, alongside hot new digital brands like Bumble, pumping millions of dollars into a good old TV spot. Even Gary Vaynerchuk, author of ‘Crushing It!’ and a thousand diatribes on the pointlessness of TV ads, was in on the action. His agency VaynerMedia produced a spot for Planters Nuts, in which a giant peanut-shaped car something something with Charlie Sheen something something.

Super Bowl advertising is not just surviving the digital revolution; if anything, it appears to be growing in influence as the technological screw in marketing tightens. The going rate for a 30-second spot this year was $5.3m and CBS sold every single spot long before Sunday’s kick off.  The original ads for the first ever Super Bowl back in 1967 cost just $40,000. Adjusted for inflation that’s about $300,000 in today’s money, or about 6% of the current price.

Jump forward to 2010 and a spot would have cost you only $3.4m in 2019 money. And the cost has kept rising consistently ever since. In the decade that has seen linear TV advertising widely relegated and portrayed as being on its last legs, the spot price for a Super Bowl ad has increased annually by about 5% in real terms.

That inflation makes no sense if you buy into the current narrative of ‘where advertising is going’. It’s digital media that leads the charge now – not old-fashioned linear TV – for starters. And we are meant to be all about the immediate measures of ROI and bottom-of-funnel efficiencies these days, not top-of-funnel brand-building fare – the stuff we get during the game.

And where is the personalisation? Isn’t this meant to be the era of big data, behavioural targeting and micro marketing? Why the fuck are brands spending millions on ads that say the same thing to a hundred million people at the same time? On a TV?

The growth and continued centrality of Super Bowl advertising, despite its apparent inability to conform to the principles of 21st-century media, sends many ‘modern’ marketers into paroxysms of ROI-induced madness.  As regular as a digital clock, they take to social media every Super Bowl weekend to point out the utter wastefulness of blowing your media budget on 30 seconds of Harrison Ford falling out with his dog. Many then follow up with a laundry list of all the ‘smarter’, more digital ways you could have spent your budget for far superior ROI.

Hilariously, these lists usually register the opposite effect to their original intention as the stream of proposed digital alternatives looks, well, lightweight in comparison. As tempting as eight posts from Selena Gomez or 357 million mobile video ad impressions might be, a Super Bowl ad looks like good value in comparison.

And the reasons for that continued superiority don’t just make for an interesting discussion, they serve as an interesting critique of how we build brands in 2019. Don’t see my “SuperList” below as simply a justification for Super Bowl ads, but rather a challenge to how we all think about advertising media in the 20th year of the 21st century.

Ritson’s Super List of seven reasons why Super Bowl advertising still makes sense

ritson super list seven reasons super bowl

1. An accurately measured, massive and unfashionably human audience

The audience for the Super Bowl is properly huge. Best predictions suggest the TV broadcast plus the live stream occurring in parallel on Sunday night will have exceed 110 million people in the US alone. The data comes from Nielsen and will be subject to great debate as usual. But, cutting a long story very short, a smaller sub-set of households (around 40,000) is entirely representative for the whole of America.

If you have basic training in market research, you will know that you don’t need 120 million data points to measure 120 million homes. If you don’t have that training you will scratch your head, and then make an ass of yourself on social media.

Whatever you think of Nielsen’s methodology, one thing that isn’t debated is that its People Meters are connected to actual people. Whether marketers want to admit it or not, the alternative media options to TV continue to be massively compromised by non-human traffic.

Best estimates put the non-human proportion of digital media at around 30% in 2018. Facebook has removed 2.8 billion (that is not a typo) fake accounts from its platform since Q4 2017. The Super Bowl comes with no such concerns. There really are that many eyeballs on the game.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: The story of digital media disruption has run its course

2. Advertising engagement

The audience might be exclusively human but the downside is that, unlike bots, they have to take a piss every now and again or indulge in a brief bit of leg-wobbling passion with the other half. This is traditionally how consumers have utilised program breaks; only the ad industry sees them as the time when advertising is watched and appreciated.

The target market sees a commercial break as exactly that – a welcome chance to grab a beer/piss/snog/nap. But the Super Bowl has uniquely super-contextual properties. American football is incredibly boring for startlingly long periods of the game (case in point, last night’s one-touchdown snoozefest) and, because audiences have switched on as much for the ads as the game, Super Bowls convert a huge proportion of the programme audience into advertising audience.

Compare a Super Bowl ad with feeble Facebook ads, which were being touted as an alternative this weekend, and you begin to see how TV might just be worth the ridiculous premium. It’s not just 110 million people, it’s 110 million people being served 100% of pixels of the ad, full screen, full volume, to multiple people, who are concentrating on the screen, looking forward to the content, then talking about it afterwards.

3. It has long-term top-of-funnel effects

We live, as agency BBH so rightly notes, in an efficiency bubble in which marketers have become enamoured with immediate metrics and the dangerous, slippery siren song of ROI. This obsession has seen more and more marketing budgets being sent down the funnel, focused on digital media, and in search of immediate effect.

To some degree there is nothing wrong with this approach. But as the money has moved down the funnel and the timelines have shortened, the practice of spending budgets at the top of the funnel on awareness, brand image and other longer-term pursuits has grown rarer and therefore ever more valuable.

The Super Bowl provides the perfect opportunity for brands to temporarily reverse their short-termism and do a bit of mass-reach, emotional brand building. As marketers remain ever more intent on plucking short-term fruit with their marketing tactics, think of the Super Bowl as a rare day when the pickers get the weekend off and the farmer leaves the irrigation on for 48 incredibly refreshing hours.

4. Creative actually counts on Sunday

Because Super Bowl ads attract incredible attention from audiences and experts alike, something rather unusual happens with many of the ads that are created for the big game. Brands that are usually absorbed with programmatic ratios and efficiency tables take time out, think about what they need to do with their expensive $5m spot and then engage world class creative teams from top-tier agencies to produce effective ads.

That’s not how we usually do things these days. The dirty secret of much of our industry is that media now dominates the effectiveness debate so much that we have stopped factoring creativity into the mix. This is despite the recurring evidence that suggests message outperforms media in the effectiveness stakes time after time.

We have become so obsessed with the pipes of advertising, their location (in-house, out-house?) and the speed and cost with which they deliver their payload that we rarely worry about what is actually being pumped through them. The Super Bowl’s extravagant cost and critical spotlight forces brands to be content-led rather than media-obsessed.

Like a magical golden turd in a year of digital diarrhoea, Super Bowl Sunday impels brands to sit down on the pot, strain their creative bowels and produce something of genuine heft for a change. Sorry for the shitty metaphor.

5. It’s signalling at its finest

One of the oldest and most important theories of advertising remains one of the most ignored among modern marketers. Irrespective of what an ad says, the very fact you have spent this much money on buying a Super Bowl slot and are in the company of the likes of Pepsi and Mercedes signals to consumers that you are a ‘big deal’.

Your product is likely to be perceived to be superior, your brand as preferable and your company as more trustworthy. Even if you just spend the 30 seconds of your expensive ad showing your logo glinting in the sun, you will signal something. That may not sound like much. But for many of the brands yesterday it was a big part of the attraction.

Kia gets to suggest it’s a big car brand just by turning up. Fizzy drink brand Bubly (me neither) makes itself look like a big deal in front of distributors, retailers and customers by simply filling the screen with stuff for 30 seconds. You don’t get that kind of response when you buy a summary card, or a million summary cards for that matter, on Twitter.

The common retort when you make the case for TV advertising is that most smaller brands “can’t afford TV”. Exactly, you fuckers. Exactly.

6. It’s cultural imprinting

This is a big one and, again, often missed by all those peddling the idea that a billion Instagram ads would have been better value for Stella Artois than bringing back Carrie Bradshaw and the Dude for a 30-second TV spot. The attraction of so much digital media is that, thanks to behavioural targeting, we don’t buy media anymore but rather opportunities to reach a particular target consumer on their digital path around the interweb.

That has a lot of efficiency advantages but it comes with one huge downside: you reach individuals at different times with different messages in isolation. It’s entirely possible that a hundred different consumers saw a hundred different ads in the spot at the top of the digital edition of the New York Times today.

Provided you assume an audience is simply a lot of individuals this makes perfect sense. One plus one plus one does equal three, after all, and eventually you can reach your whole target market. But, of course, that is not the right way to see things at all.

An audience is a living, plural thing that interacts and responds to itself in real time. Watching a horror movie in a full cinema versus at home on the couch on your own is a completely different experience. The power of others seeing the same thing as you, in the same room and across the world in the same moment, cannot be overstated.

The social psychologist Kevin Simler calls it ‘cultural imprinting’. Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman thinks it’s the reason that marketers struggle to build brands with exclusively digital media. It’s a huge reason that cinema, radio, outdoor media and TV will all retain their place in the media mix of the 21st century. It’s not enough to know that the Dude is drinking Stella. You have to know that everyone you know also now knows that the Dude is drinking Stella.

The weird maths of audience interaction means that it’s a case of 100 million to the power of 100 million. Audiences are multiplicative not incremental.

7. It’s integrated

And finally, perhaps best of all, Super Bowl ads are not really TV ads at all. They often aren’t even ads. They have been premiered on TV shows, written about in newspapers, voted on by the public. They have been shared and commented on all over social media. They have been referenced about in columns like this. Replayed in bars and playgrounds. And the fact that they encompass so many different media means they enjoy the kind of synergy, salience and effectiveness that exclusive airing on TV could never achieve.

Occasionally a Facebook ad makes it into other media but it’s rare and usually comes with a headline like ‘Now look what those fuckers are doing to our kids’. Positive multimedia synergies are possible with any ad in any format but TV ads, and especially Super Bowl ads, enjoy a significant interaction premium.

In the fragmented house of modern media, television advertising is usually the hallway. Start there and you can often open doors to most of the other media rooms in the house by taking advantage of the content, signalling power and creativity of the 30-second spot.

The fascinating contradictory reality of Super Bowl advertising is that it is not a dinosaur or an outlier in the world of modern media planning. It’s actually a much needed and increasingly valuable addendum to what ails advertising.

In fact, it’s so valuable even the dumbest digital prophet will not venture a prediction of the ‘death’ of Super Bowl ads any time soon. They are so predominant that they avoid even this trope, which haunts almost every other corner of marketing.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong about media

The only threat comes not from the demise of TV or advertising, but from the precarious state of the game itself. With an increasing amount of scandal attached to American football, and the tragic roll call of head injuries that afflict a growing proportion of the game’s players, it’s the game not the advertising that’s in danger.