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Why the Hell Do Brands Buy Super Bowl Ads? And Why the Hell Don’t They?

Is a Super Bowl ad smart or a waste of money? Does anyone drink a beer because of a horse or a soft drink because of a pop star? Yes! And, no! This late January quandary is a long-running inner dialogue I’ve had for over a decade as I’ve found myself working with various measurement companies to quantify the cultural conversations on social, the viewing patterns in digital and the creative trends on TV for Super Bowl ads.   

Like so much of marketing, Super Bowl advertising is a thing that can be at once a total no-brainer and completely ridiculous at the same time. 

Likewise, I have a love-hate relationship with this time of year. All of a sudden, people who spend very little time thinking about the creative and TV buying trends are supposed ad experts. Just days later, the data and anecdotes will show at least half of Big Game advertisers and those self-proclaimed brand evangelists didn’t quite seize the moment. At the same time, I like it because the Super Bowl is basically a perfect microcosm of the attention economy. 

What, if anything, have marketers collectively learned from Super Bowl advertising over the years? A few observations from the trenches:

Even as digital rises, TV still matters

In 2014, Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan, using data from our client iSpot.tv, wrote about how early-release Super Bowl ads were getting millions of views online without promotion. We all thought: This proves digital is arriving! But then, of course, game day arrived and each ad got 150 million+ TV impressions in one afternoon, offering a reality check for those who hyped the downfall of TV advertising.

Neglect Facebook at your own peril

 In 2015, Facebook started making its run for video by rewarding native uploads. As Peter Kafka noted at the time, 40% of Super Bowl ad views online were now coming from Facebook. To my suprise, half the brands missed that gift from Zuckerberg. 

Flooding the channel doesn’t always help

Then in 2016, brands seemed to collectively decide that if they just pumped more variations on their Super Bowl creative into the market, they would find new audiences. More ads, more chances! At some point, though, they must have done a brutal ROI analysis, because that “lots of creative, early on” mentality has been on a steep downward slope ever since. Below, a chart inspired by Jessica Wohl’s piece in Ad Age where she explores the teaser release strategies in detail. That slow release trend continues. Only 43 brands have released pre-game creatives (as of Thursday) compared to 51 last year, as many as 67 in recent years.

(via iSpot)

Some brands have figured out how to leverage celebrities with massive online followings.

That year (2016), we also saw the influencer economy really come to life, and overall digital activity spiked pre-game and on game day, with Drake getting calls on his (T-Mobile) cell phone and Kevin Hart driving people to care about Hyundai. But once again, half the brands in the Super Bowl failed to catch the best marketing trends available to them. In the age of sharing — of algorithmic content “Hunger Games” —– why wouldn’t brands put more effort into properly promoting time spent on their most expensive creative buys for the year? (WTF, brands?! Are you worried that the “Smaht Pahk” isn’t as funny the second time around?)

Over time, though, more and more brands have grasped the fact that the right celebrity presence in a Super Bowl ad can make the difference, as this iSpot analysis suggests:

Increasingly, the winners aren’t just the brands that catch the moment on TV. They are the brands that leverage the creative elements combined with a distribution strategy that is on-trend digitally. This year, for instance, while Verizon leverages the power of Fortnite as an entertainment platform with an audience and cachet with youth and parents, many will invest in the cultural king-maker status of TikTok — Ad Age’s marketer of the year.  And likely, many will not.

The math CAN actually ad up, despite the insane cost of Super Bowl ads.

The effective CPM — when you add up the TV impressions and digital actions against the number of visits, downloads, purchases and clicks — can actually make business sense. iSpot did a compelling business outcome / ROAS (Return on Advertising Spend) study for brands to show that the cost-per-conversion surrounding Super Bowl ads may generally be higher, but the volume of conversions could number as many as what otherwise might take months to happen.

Smart brands know that the same amount of impressions spread throughout the year on something more targeted, data-infused and better planned may well yield a higher return and a lower cost of conversion, but the sheer volume of leads in a short amount of time can’t be duplicated. 

And there is something bigger missing in the apples-to-oranges TV vs digital. The Super Bowl is the time where people actually open their ears to brands — when marketers  have more than a few seconds with consumers where they have a chance to be cool, in a room full of people, without being purchased or consumed.

But then again, is it worth the hassle? Just think of the many PowerPoints and boardroom conversations, the many tense brand conversations between hipster Monocle-reading agency types who get culture, and Larry, whose moustache twitches when he can’t see clear ROI, and Tanya in the middle, who understands both sides. Oh the drama!  And then, so many high- fives as they agree, this year over Zoom, that this will be their #PuppyMonkeyBaby moment — all so they can make people say to each other “yeah, that was cool,” or “Hehehe, yeah, I like that,” (read in Beavis and Butt-Head voices).

It’s a manufactured viral moment.

Brands can and do buy as many or more TV impressions for cheaper than a Super Bowl spot. They can get YouTube and Facebook bots to generate lots of one and two second “views” — but they can’t beg that much attention and shared experience without actually getting consumer buy-in. 

So in the end, if you’re going to blow a bunch of tax-deductible marketing dollars into the consciousness of human beings, may as well take your shot at the hearts and minds of consumers when they are open to it instead of standing in the way of the next show someone wants to watch or slipping upwards in a modern doom-scroll.

In the end, you may just sell more crap. And if you don’t, well, at least you seem bold to your board and Wall Street. So long as you aren’t sexist, racist or otherwise tone-deaf as hell, you’ll probably — maybe, more likely than not — move the needle with consumers.