Mark Ritson: The Super Bowl and misplaced talk of digital supremacy

The Super Bowl headlines may lead marketers to believe the myth that TV is dead and the future is digital, but that’s only half the story.

super bowl

I know for most of us the Super Bowl is, by and large, a game in which a team of very large Americans dressed in green beat up a similarly attired equally huge group of men in silver. But beyond the actual sporting bit the biggest night in the American TV calendar continues to offer something of a media bellwether.

For starters, you get a pretty good insight into the bias of the 30-somethings who write most of the column inches on media over in America. A cursory scan of the main headlines about the Super Bowl audience tells you all you need to know about the digital-centric view operating across most media channels.

The TV audience for Super Bowl LII was variously described as “dipping” (USA Today), “slipping” (Variety), “dropping” (Newsday) and “tumbling” (AdAge) to its lowest figure since 2009. Meanwhile, streaming audiences who kept their TVs off and instead chose to watch the game on NBC’s website, the NFL’s mobile service or on one of the other streaming platforms, were the big winners on Sunday evening. Streaming audiences for the game were variously described as “record-breaking” (USA Today), “scoring big” (CNET), and “peaking” (Multichannel News).

Leave it with the headlines and it would be easy to walk away believing the myth that TV is in a fatal nosedive and digital streaming has all but replaced it as the dominant manner of accessing video. But, of course, this is all part of the giant bullshit fairy tale about digital that marketers have been spinning for the past decade.

TV audiences might be declining but they are not in the kind of free-fall most marketers seem to think they are. What’s more, digital audiences are steadfastly refusing to rise up and cable-cut their way to a brave new, non-TV future despite what you may have read recently.

READ MORE: Getting to the business case for advertising

The numbers, as ever, tell the true story despite what the adjectives that surround them might suggest.

Super Bowl LII was watched by 103.4 million Americans on NBC on Sunday night. That makes it the 10th most watched TV show in history. By the time the out-of-home audience is added to that total the final tally is likely to be around 107 million people watching the game on TV. That is a relatively low figure for a Super Bowl but it’s still a hundred million fucking people. The media coverage makes it sound more like a small village hall filled with the old and infirm.

The digital story

The “record breaking” streaming numbers also tell a story. Across the various digital options the streaming audience on Sunday was 2.02 million. Again, that is not a number to be sneezed at. It is around the average audience for BBC Breakfast.

A word here on methodology. I am deliberately avoiding the usual digital mumbo jumbo of proclaiming the “streamed minutes” or “social reach” or “total stream starts” which all produce gigantic hot air balloons of numbers that suggest enormous viewership while prevaricating the possibility of comparisons with TV.

Instead I am using a simpler statistic called an “audience measure” that shows on average how many people were in the audience for each minute of the show. This metric also has the handy/dangerous capability of being a cross currency that enables us to see just how “disappointing” the TV audience was (a hundred million fucking people) and “record breaking” the streaming audience was (slightly more than you get on a cold Tuesday in this tiny country for breakfast TV on the BBC).

If TV ever does die, its assassins will really struggle to find further ways to promote their offerings once it is gone.

You could have predicted that the proportion of the audience streaming the Super Bowl would be about 2% of the total versus 98% watching on TV because that ratio has been peculiarly consistent for the last few years. It’s been the approximate balance for all the NFL games streamed first by Twitter last season and then by Amazon this year. It was also the approximate ratio of viewing for the Rio Olympics in countries where a streaming app and live TV were offered side by side. About two in 100 people opt for the stream, the rest switch on their TV.

The average American home has 2.5 people living in it. Imagine a single man streaming the Super Bowl in his Pittsburg apartment on 1 Chestnut Street. We now have to walk past the next 20 houses, assuming all the residents are watching the game on TV, before we get a proper representation of the balance between TV and digital audiences on Sunday night. Twenty houses.

All that, of course, is very unfair because, thus far, we have only looked at the actual audience size on a per minute basis. That’s a very ropey definition of an audience for advertising because, while I know that someone was in the room when a TV was playing with the Super Bowl on it, I do not know exactly how many of those people watched the TV show with their eyes on the screen, let alone what proportion opted to carry on watching when the ads began. All of these ads were 100% viewable, let’s not make that mistake again, but were they viewed?

Here we encounter one of the truly great advantages of the Super Bowl and, to be fair to those of a digital persuasion, something that makes Super Bowl audiences wildly different from the usual TV viewing public. American football is, to put it mildly, a game of spits and spurts.

Despite the average NFL game lasting more than three hours, actual game play consists of about 11 minutes. That leaves a lot of time for anticipation, analysis and advertising. It’s a cliché that also happens to be true – Super Bowl ads are often the most anticipated part of the game. I remember hosting a Super Bowl party in my apartment in Minneapolis in 1999 when the Broncos smashed the Falcons and it was all but over with more than an hour of the show to go. All we had to survive on were Cheetos, Bud Light and whatever the great goddess of advertising sent our way during the much appreciated programme breaks.

Whereas a typical TV audience might deliver 35% of its audience to the ads with classic, eyes-on-screen attention, many of the ad breaks during Sunday night’s game would have delivered an already attentive, highly involved audience. The combination of advertising involvement and rich social context on Sunday night across America explains why Super Bowl ads, at around $5m for a 30-second spot, command such a premium.

No wonder many of the companies touted as “TV killers” were lining up at the weekend to pay NBC millions to screen ads for their technology and streaming shows, using the very medium they are all attempting to displace to promote their wares.

Netflix was pushing its new sci-fi film, and Hulu and Amazon paid millions to promote their new mini-series. Amazon followed suit with its own winning ad promoting Alexa. If TV ever does die, its assassins will really struggle to find further ways to promote their offerings once it is gone.

READ MORE: Super Bowl 2018 – The advertising winners and losers

Misplaced talk of digital supremacy

Despite the big TV audience and even bigger advertising bonanza on Sunday, there was still much talk of digital supremacy among the usual suspects.

Digiday led the charge with a breakdown of what you could have done with your $5m if you had opted not to go for TV ads and spent your money on digital options instead.

The alternatives included about 25 social games, four weeks of Snapchat lenses, reaching about the same number of people on Facebook with four times the frequency or (be still my beating heart) Selena Gomez posting on Instagram about how awesome your brand is eight times.

It was a noble effort, but did rather miss the point. Mind you, so did all the “traditionalists” who saw Digiday’s article and flew into an anti-digital rage defending the sanctity of TV ads and the value of Super Bowl campaigns.

The real advantage of the Super Bowl, if everyone can calm down for a minute, is to see the integrated beauty in all of this. The answer is not to follow Digiday and switch your money to a digital alternative, nor is it to dump all of the money into super expensive TV ads. The smart play is to do a bit of both.

You want the reach, the drama, the emotion of the Super Bowl for your brand if you can afford it. As Les Binet and Peter Field would advise, you want to keep it simple and emotional and very much at the brand level. This is all about awareness and association and emotion and fame.

But you also want the targeted, product-based persuasion of some well executed digital media too. As usual the answer to the communications challenge of Super Bowl Sunday isn’t A or B, it is A x B.

Look at the overall winner of the evening in advertising terms – Tide. The 72-year-old brand pulled off a sensational coup with its brilliant ads on Sunday night. But we can be sure that of the 100 million who saw the campaign on TV, a similar number will search for the ads and watch them on YouTube before the month is out. Which exposure works better? The surprising social charge of seeing the ad fresh with friends during the Super Bowl? Or searching for it at work because you missed the game and heard it was awesome? Who cares. Tide wins twice. At the end of the day a target consumer sees a message that is on brand. The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

There is no better place to understand the state of modern advertising than the back end of January watching a Super Bowl. It was there that Apple started its long journey into superiority, where Coke finally beat Pepsi and Budweiser maintained its place at the top of the beer mountain. On Sunday it was the place to see that the battle between “digital” and “traditional” is over and the contest between “streaming” and “TV” has come to a pointless conclusion. The answer is both.

If Digiday was run by people with fewer d-words in their job titles they would stop asking what you could have done on Facebook or Snapchat with the $5m you spent on TV ads, and ask why you would not want to spend $10m across all of it and let the synergies produce that beautiful and entirely wonderful algebraic outcome that begets all good integrated marketing execution. It’s not A or B, it’s A x B and the result is always greater than 2A or 2B.



There are 11 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Tadas R. 6 Feb 2018

    Finally, someone has said it aloud: The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

  2. Malcolm Auld 7 Feb 2018

    Careful Mark, you’re speaking common sense. Another interesting statistic is each year in at least the last three, only about a third of advertisers return to promote their wares during the Super Bowl. That’s a 70% churn rate, which is high by any measure,

  3. Al King 7 Feb 2018

    American Football was designed by a committee of sports commissioners, advertisers and media owners to stop often, so they could run more ads and sell more product. I didn’t see the game. Or the ads. Neither did I search for the ads on YouTube. Earlier that day was a sporting contest of much more significance: England vs Italy in the 6 nations. Advertisers included RBS (I don’t bank with them), Guinness (Im English, I don’t drink that Mick swill), Accenture (a B2B brand – why?) and Tissot (I’ve got a watch, thank you). So fuck American Football and advertising. Long live rugby.

  4. Joe Clift 7 Feb 2018

    Great, balanced insight (and I’m referring to Mark, not Al King…!). I started in this business when TV was king, have had to evolve as digital, social developed – and so I find it natural and intuitive that they should be in an appropriate balance – not a case or one or t’other. I like your very clear articulation of what should be self-evident but – sadly – often doesn’t seem to be.

  5. Lee Grunnell 7 Feb 2018

    Great as ever Mark. Now I’m waiting for someone to tell us their 19 year old son streamed it over the web & use the fact as “real world evidence” that no-one under 40 watches TV any more – despite all the evidence to the contrary. You know someone out there’s thinking it…

  6. Chris Worrell 7 Feb 2018

    Slightly shameless post this, but I blogged about this on Linked In – trying to link what we are seeing in the advertising industry to our inbuilt biases. Feel free to read and/or trash!

  7. Scott Thomas 7 Feb 2018

    This article is much to do about nothing. It matters little to marketers whether their commercials are watched on cable/satellite TV, streaming TV, computers or mobile devices.

  8. mark ritson 8 Feb 2018

    Exact when they have to buy media. Apart from that small issue….

  9. Paul Dyer 9 Feb 2018

    Denominator-driven growth is what I call a media X growing from 1% reach to 1.1% reach, media Y declining from 20% to 19%. The media headlines “10% GROWTH IN MEDIA X”, 5% DECLINE IN MEDIA Y. THE WORLD IS CRASHING IN ON MEDIA Y.”

  10. valentine tomin 13 Feb 2018

    Mark, you are an eagle amongst turkeys.

    The way so called experts fluff up their feathers by backing the latest super-duper technology to supersede the existing verges on puerile.

    I suggest there are few instances where something honed and developed over time is completely written off by a usurper. It rarely happens.

    Okay, technologies do evolve – Morse code to telegrams to telex to fax…And show me a telephony based business that didn’t poop its pants at the emergence of email! But they all coexisted.

    And interestingly, those that end up cast aside, are invariably in a holding pattern, waiting for somebody to come along and give them new purpose (…Who would have thought that Polaroid film would enjoy its current renaissance in spite of all that smartphone camera technology has to offer?)

    But what does happen is a broadening of the opportunities to integrate and engage. The word is CHOICE

    So why the plethora of myopic, ill-thought through, self serving arguments on why one technology is better than another? (I’m not a doctor but think I’ve just healed myself!)

    Surely time would be better spent making sure the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts?

    …and if 1 + 1 does not equal 3, it’s not working.

  11. R Roy 13 Feb 2018

    I totally get your point of A x B and agree, digital + TV probably makes sense. But shouldn’t the first consideration be about who are your audience, and where are they? If they’re on both, then fine, but they might not be.

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