Super Bowl XVII ads: Many challenges, questions and uncertainties

This guest post is written by John Antil, Associate Professor of Marketing

Super Bowl Sunday is a truly unique day for television. Not only does the big game have by far the largest TV viewing audience, but most of these viewers actually want to see the advertisements. In fact, some estimates suggest as many as 50 percent of viewers would rather watch the commercials than the game itself. This creates a broadcast with millions of critics sharing their opinions of ads via social media, and marketers gauging the return on their expensive marketing effort via the social response.

Despite the importance of this day for marketers, many of the most important variables that go into the sale and creation of Super Bowl ads are relatively unknown and lacking good data and transparency. There are many myths about the broadcast, even among the professionals who write about the game its accompanying ads. Two of the most of these pervasive myths are the actual number of viewers, and the real dollar cost of buying a Super Bowl spot.

So what is happening in the world of 2018’s Super Bowl ads?

Difficult Year to Sell Spots?

Super Bowl ads are sold differently than any other TV ads. The actual cost of a 30-second spot is not well known, and clearly different companies pay different amounts depending on several factors.

Networks like to publicize a rather high “average” cost and to project an image of scarcity. Earlier this year, NBC announced that they had only a “handful” of spots left to sell, but just a few weeks ago they announced they had about 10 spots remaining to sell, likely an abnormally large number so close to the game.

The cost of an ad this year could surprisingly end up being less than last year, likely settling in at a publicized cost of about 5.0 million. This is a bit less than last year’s estimates of $5.1 to $5.2 million. This alone makes one wonder if slots have been a difficult sell this year.

This year also brings relatively abnormal circumstances, including decreased NFL TV ratings and the Olympics following the Super Bowl on NBC by only a few days. Companies also are working to select the right strategy at time of so much scrutiny by consumers in light of controversies created by some of last year’s ads.

So, with NFL game ratings down by an average of about 10 percent, should buyers be concerned about lower viewership and ratings for this year’s Super Bowl? I would say companies should not worry. The official Nielsen ratings are way off the actual number of viewers, and do not include significant segments of viewers like out of home viewing (e.g. bars, restaurants, dorms, and parties). Though a bit complicated to calculate, a good estimate of the actual number of viewers is most likely about 150 million, maintaining its position as by far the largest number of viewers of any TV broadcast. This makes few million higher or lower viewers rather insignificant in proportion to the actual total number of viewers.

NBC having both the Super Bowl and Olympics can be seen as either a potential positive or a negative. For advertisers with large budgets, the networks will frequently offer a bundling of other programing along with the Super Bowl buy at attractive discounts. However, having the Olympics beginning only 4 days after the Super Bowl could influence some companies to forego the Super Bowl in favor of buying lower-cost Olympics spots.

Super Bowl Strategy

An effective strategy for a Super Bowl ad is likely the most important consideration for potential advertisers. There are so many variables involved in this decision, but some of the most important for a company to consider include cost and release timing.

The hefty price of about $5 million per 30 seconds is in itself a difficult decision, but that price can easily more than double with the high costs of production and extensive digital promotion. Companies are now buying search terms, creating micro sites, developing special online programing directly related to ads, and creating “War Rooms” where employees monitor social media and interact with tweets and comments during the game. Perhaps the most famous company Super Bowl tweet was Oreo’s “You can still dunk in the dark,” which went out during the 2013 game’s blackout. Oreo almost instantly created online content to go with the tweet, which became an online sensation.

In large part because of this digital activity, more and more companies are now releasing their full ad or teasers prior to the game. Years ago, even which company would be on the game was a closely held secret and “surprise” was considered most important. But in recent years, as many as 75 percent of advertisers now release a teaser or the full ad prior to the game, usually 5-10 days before.

As of February 1, AdAge, perhaps the best source on which ads we will see, has listed 17 full ads so far. Their list of brands that have announced being in the Super Bowl is at 34, and iSpotTV has the number of advertisers announced thus far 38. But considering the number of national spots has been consistently about 65 each year, it would seem that this year there may well be more companies wanting the “surprise factor.”

Creative Challenges

A major issue this year has become the use of any ads related to social/political/controversial issues. With a number of divisive issues playing a role the national conversation, and since consumers have a variety of opinions, including any controversial issue in an ad will lead to negative reactions from a portion of the population.

During last year’s game, Audi addressed equal pay for women, and 84 Lumber and Budweiser both addressed immigration (in very different ways). These turned out to be among the most talked about and “digitally active” ads in the broadcast, with favorability ratings as high as 60 percent. However, research suggests that dissatisfied customers are far more likely than satisfied ones to share their feelings online. This means that even controversial ads with high favorability ratings are still likely to receive a number of negative comments.

When considering the content/theme/execution of an ad, companies also have to keep in mind the unique nature of the Super Bowl. In essence, advertisers are speaking with almost the entire country, and studies suggest that what these consumers want most is to be entertained by the ads they watch.

Historically, humor is a safe way to go to accomplish this. If one examines USAToday’s AdMeter, one sees that the most liked ads are dominated by humor. But this certainly does not mean emotional ads are disliked. In fact many of the all-time best ads have been highly emotional. Last year, for example, one of the most liked ads was Hyundai’s “A better Super Bowl” in which troops on deployment watched the game with their families via two-way video. And Anheuser-Busch, often the king of Super Bowl ads, have frequently used humorous but also emotional ads involving their iconic Clydesdales. USA Today recently announced the best Super Bowl commercials “of all time,” and both first and second places went to emotional Budweiser Clydesdale ads.

While political content may be out, philanthropy is in. There will be at least three philanthropic ads, two from Anheuser Bush and one from Hyundai. These ads will promote organizations like, a Red Cross affiliated program and the Hyundai Hope on Wheels foundation.

Advertising on the Super Bowl is extremely difficult to do well and is risky as well as expensive. No agency wants their ad voted the worst ad on the Super Bowl.

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