Are viewers more interested in over-the-top commercials than the big game?

01/30/2013 2:52 PM

01/30/2013 2:53 PM

On Jan. 15, 1967, the Kansas City Chiefs met the Green Bay Packers in the first-ever AFL-NFL World Championship Game. That game would retroactively become known as the very first Super Bowl ever played. And, in front of an audience of nearly 62,000 people, the Packers dominated the Chiefs 35-10.

Since then, the game has changed significantly. Athletes are bigger. Hits are harder. Competition is fiercer. Even the helmets and pads have evolved to resemble something akin to military-style combat gear. And, as the Super Bowl transformed from a novel event that couldn’t even sell-out its inaugural championship into a sporting powerhouse where luxury suites sell for six figures, commercial sponsorships have matured as well, and have become a part of the indelible fabric that makes up Super Bowl Sunday.

According to Nielsen TV Ratings, less than 25,000 people watched the first Super Bowl on television. Today, the Super Bowl is America’s most-watched television broadcast. An estimated 111.3 million U.S. viewers tuned in last year for Super Bowl XLVI – more than a third of the entire nation. And, if the trend of the last few years continues, this Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII will set another viewership record.

With bigger ratings comes bigger ad buys - because the NFL, the networks, the products and the advertising agencies know you’re watching - and in many cases viewers specifically tune into the commercials, which have evolved in some cases into mini-movies or 30-second TV shows. According to Fox News, the average cost of a 30-second ad during the first Super Bowl was $42,000 (adjusted to $266,500 with inflation). However, 30-second ads for this year’s Super Bowl sold for an average of $3.8 million, with some spots selling for up to $4 million. The New York Times reports that the game’s broadcaster, CBS, sold all of its time slots, numbering on average 60 to 70 in 30-second increments. There will be some fresh faces on Sunday with brands such as Gildan USA and SodaStream making their Super Bowl debut. And, Super Bowl favorites such as Audi, Go Daddy, Volkswagen, and Anheuser-Busch will make return appearances.

And, the ads aren’t merely getting more expensive; they’re getting longer. “This will be the first Super Bowl that broadcasts three commercials during the game that each will be longer than one minute,” writes USA Today’s marketing reporter Bruce Horovitz. At an average price of more than $126,000 per second, some brands will spend close to $10 million to get your eyeballs on their product for less time than it takes to brush your teeth.

So much for the bad economy, eh?

Local advertisers from Myrtle Beach are also trying to get a slice of the Super Bowl pie. Area CBS affiliate WBTW is reporting “double digit growth” in ad revenue compared to the last time CBS broadcast the Super Bowl in 2010. Of course, local businesses are not dropping major bucks like national advertisers are, which is why you see ads for stores such as Dick’s Pawn Shop follow national campaigns for brands such as Kia. Local ads this year are going for $12,000 to $15,000, according to WBTW Vice President-General Manager Randy Ingram.

Ingram says that CBS gives local affiliates four or five ad slots for local commercials once the game actually starts. This includes a couple during halftime, one during the third quarter, and one at the end of the game. However, you may see some of your favorite local businesses advertising before and after the game. “The ‘Super Bowl’ for us starts when CBS starts covering it,” says Ingram, noting that special Super Bowl shows begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, and continue through the post game programming. “So there’s quite a bit there that counts as Super Bowl day.”

However, ads are not the only things changing. The Super Bowl audience is expanding to include a much broader demographic of, well, pretty much everybody. Whereas the Super Bowl used to be the domain of jersey-wearing, nacho-eating men high fiving each other after a first down, it has now become a television event for the entire family -- even those who have no idea what a first down is. Jon Swallen, chief research officer at the research firm Kantar Media, tells USA Today that half of the Super Bowl’s viewing audience watches only for the ads. In fact, Swallen says that only seven out of every 1,000 viewers change the channel when commercials come on.

This phenomenon has fundamentally changed how brands approach Super Bowl advertising in almost everyway, including how advertisements are consumed before, during, and after the game. Now, channels over a wide array of media platforms that are dedicated exclusively to Super Bowl ads. Roku, a device that allows users to stream digital content from the web to their televisions, created a digital channel specifically for re-airing Super Bowl ads. Hopping on the ad bandwagon as well, CBS created a show featuring past ads that aired on Wednesday. Then, of course, there are the hundreds of bloggers, forums, and Web sites that rank and debate Super Bowl ads weeks after the final play of the game.

And Academia is weighing in on the phenomenon right here in the Palmetto State. The University of South Carolina offers a class specifically on advertising and the Super Bowl. That’s right. An entire, semester-long class dedicated exclusively to Super Bowl advertising. And, it’s in its 10th year. “The semester is really looking at the Super Bowl and how it has influenced popular culture, and how it is influenced by popular culture,” says professor Bonnie Drewniany, who teaches the course. Drewniany’s research on Super Bowl advertising trends and strategy has appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio. And, it’s her insights into the cultural significance of Super Bowl advertising that she brings to the classroom. Over the course of the semester, students research and analyze Super Bowl commercials of the last few decades, while learning the basics of creating commercials.

The primary objective of the class is to gain an understanding of the profound impact that Super Bowl advertisements have on our society, as well as discover how cultural trends impact advertising as well. For example, students research how ads evolved during a time period pertaining to certain cultural topics, such as how minorities are portrayed, or how gender roles have shifted. “Men used to be shown in a very positive light,” notes Drewniany. “Now they’re often the brunt of jokes.” Students must also create their own version of Super Bowl ads.

But, how did we fall this far down the rabbit hole? How did we get to the point where Super Bowl ads are now part of university curriculums? According to Drewniany, it all started with Steve Jobs, George Orwell, and the year 1984.

The Year Everything Changed

It was 1984. Tech company Apple just completed work on a brand new product called the Apple Macintosh personal computer, and it wanted to announce this revolutionary product to the world. Apple solicited the help of advertising agency Chiat\Day (now TBWA\Chiat\Day), which came up with concept of basing the commercial around George Orwell’s dystopian classic, “ 1984.” Apple poured $900,000 into making the ad – an inconceivable amount at that time – and hired “Blade Runner” director Ridley Scott to direct it. The finished product was something the world had never seen before from an advertisement.

It only ran once, in the third quarter of a game watched by 77 million viewers – a fraction of the number of today’s games. However, it changed Super Bowl advertising forever.

“The interesting thing about that is just the fluke that it appeared on the Super Bowl because it was originally scheduled to air on a college bowl game on January 1,” says Drewniany. “And, the product wasn’t ready, so they pushed it back to a later date, and it happened to be the Super Bowl. So it’s interesting that this major, newsworthy event happened somewhat by accident.”

Apple’s ad caused jaws to drop for many reasons. For example, most tech ads during this time were heavy on product demonstrations. Apple, however, did not show the product once. But, that wasn’t what necessarily changed the game. The thing that made Apple’s ad so revolutionary was that it was a cinematic experience, with production value unrivaled by any other advertising at the time.

"It’s really theater," says Drewniany. "Since ’1984,’ the production value obviously has gone through the roof.” It’s become a war between brands, competing every year for the Super Bowl’s best ad, and the chance to be the next “1984.”

The Evolution of Ad Warfare

In World War I, battles were fought, as the saying goes, in the trenches. Called “trench warfare,” opposing forces would use a complex series of dugout trenches to attack each other as enemy soldiers popped-up out of their positions to make an advance. Now, President Barack Obama can order the use of an unmanned-drone to attack targets located 10,000 miles away from Washington, D.C.

Modern advertising since 1984 has evolved in similar ways. Ads from just a few decades ago appear primitive, if not savage, compared to the ads of today. While there are certainly timeless classics from the “dark age” of Super Bowl advertising, such as Coke’s “Mean Joe Green” spot, nothing from those days compare to the strategy and tactics of today’s campaigns.

Much of this has to do with advancements in digital technology, which has opened the floodgates on what’s possible in producing an ad. “With advanced technology and [computer generated] effects, the advertising industry has been able to produce incredible ads and really showcase their talents more than ever before,” says Sandra Tuttle, creative director for DSL Marketing, a Myrtle Beach-based ad agency. “Budweiser has always been a favorite of mine with their animated characters from Spuds McKenzie, to the Frogs, to the Dog Party.”

The swath of social media platforms also adds new weapons in an advertisers arsenal as they constantly explore more ways to engage users through multiple communication channels. “Television viewership is going up, but how [people] watch it is changing,” says Scott Brandon, president of Myrtle Beach’s Brandon Agency. Brandon points out that consumers are increasingly turning to devices such as Netflix, Roku, and AppleTV to watch entertainment programming.

“There’s a whole concept out there called multi-screening,” explains Brandon. “You’re watching television, you’re on your phone, and you’re on your tablet or laptop…I think you’re going to see a very long term trend of people trying to engage you through TV commercials, and get you interactive in one of those mediums.”

The multi-screening concept has lead to greater audience engagement from advertisers. This year, Coca-Cola is using audience participation to literally direct its Super Bowl advertisements. During the game, Coke will run a 60-second advertisement that encourages users to go to to vote on how its post-game advertisement will end. Similarly, Audi is using its YouTube channel prior to Sunday’s game in order to generate audience participation in selecting a conclusion to its final ad for the actual Super Bowl. In both instances, audience participation in television ads now includes sending consumers to additional advertising channels.

For Audi and Coke, this means more opportunities for brand exposure. To unsuspecting consumers, it just seems like fun.

And still, the rabbit hole goes deeper.

More Super Bowl advertisers are so-called “leaking” ad previews on social media sites, something that Brandon says is a sure sign that “commercials are becoming as popular as the event itself,” since advertisers are investing more money into roll-out strategies prior to the Super Bowl itself. “It’s all about engaging the customer to gain brand strength,” says Tuttle. “Sharing [through] social media like Facebook and Twitter will take this to a even higher level of awareness, and propel the advertiser to achieve greater viewership during, and after, the Super Bowl.”

More online buzz equals more brand exposure, which means more bang for the buck when it comes to Super Bowl ad buys. And, while you score, rank, and interact with a brand’s ad, that brand is scoring, ranking and tracking your interactions. Perhaps Apple’s “1984” ad had a much deeper, unintended meaning.

The Ad War’s Master Architect

If there is one guy who knows about building great Super Bowl ads, it’s Paul Venables. Venables is the co-founder of San Francisco-based ad agency Venables, Bell & Partners. In 2008, the firm pitched Audi on a concept intended for showcasing in the Super Bowl. The ad was a parody of the famous scene from “The Godfather” in which a movie director wakes up to find a horse head in his bed; except, in Audi’s version, it’s the front of an old German luxury car.

Since then, Audi has been a regular star on Super Bowl Sunday.

You might remember VBP’s 2012 Super Bowl ad for Audi called “Vampire Party.” The ad featured a gathering of vampires that was suddenly (and, unfortunately for them, tragically) interrupted when a reveler pulled-up to the party in an Audi, and its high definition headlights turned them all to dust. Industry news site AdWeek ranked it as the 10th most-watched commercial on YouTube for 2012.

“When you go in designing something for the Super Bowl, I think your approach is a little different,” says Venables. “There’s higher stakes, so maybe you’re a little bit more nervous. But, you know the opportunity is tremendous, and you keep kind of pushing yourself to do something great.”

Of course, not everybody does something great.

“I think in a lot of creative departments the call comes to do a Super Bowl spot, and they immediately go, ’Well we have to do something extreme and crazy and gimmicky,’” says Venables. “I just think that’s still how people approach it. And, sometimes that yields great stuff, but a lot of times I think it leaves people reaching for something that isn’t quite worth reaching for, or is shallow because it’s a quick gimmick.”

Venables highlights the Kate Upton ad teaser for Mercedes Benz, featuring a slow-motion Upton in typical, scantly clad attire. “I think the Mercedes Benz teaser that they released is just a terrible embarrassment for them because they’re trying to be…something that they’re not,” he says. “It’s really, it’s kind of sad. They’re clearly trying to say, ’Hey, look at us! We belong in the Super Bowl and we can act like Doritos.’ But no one wants to buy a Mercedes knowing they’re acting like Doritos.”

“You got to be true to who you are in the Super Bowl,” Venables cautions. “Some of the rules, some of the guidelines, are less rigid. You can push it a little bit more, but you can’t step outside and be somebody that you’re not.”

This is why Venables approaches concept development for his Super Bowl ads with flexibility, but also a rigidness that doesn’t let creativity run wild. This ensures they’re able to pick the best concept, which must fit the unique dynamic of the Super Bowl while still being true to the brand.

“With Audi, we can do a brand specific thing that’s just really about the four rings, or we could do something about a particular model,” says Venables, noting this year’s Super Bowl spot will feature the Audi S6. “Or, we could do something about a technology; we could do a Quatro thing, or a TDI clean diesel thing. So, right there, those are three different briefs, really.”

“We know generally the objective we want to hit, and then we might look at from each of those angles -- product, technology, and brand -- and see what’s the best story; what’s the most compelling thing for the Super Bowl,” he adds.

Then, There Are The Critics

Not everybody is excited about the Super Bowl ad bacchanalia, even within the ad community itself. Critics claim the Super Bowl is a colossal waste of money for brands, and merely exists as a sideshow to entertain consumers rather than actually pursuing a marketing strategy. Writing in an article for AdAge, Brand consultant Johnathan Baskin calls the Super Bowl the “dumbest night for brands.”

“We’re going to gather again…to witness companies spend oodles of money to entertain us and call it business strategy?” questions Baskin. “It’s more like watching a drunk down another fifth and calling it temperance…Worse, the Super Bowl social seems focused on getting consumers to focus on the event ... at which they won’t be told anything useful.”

“They’ll trust advertising even less by the time of next year’s game,” he concludes.

Baskin’s criticism of the Super Bowl ad frenzy isn’t without merit. To be sure, there are many bad ads aired during the Super Bowl – even at this all-star level where brands will drop millions on mere seconds of airtime. And, on rare occasions, the ads are outright dangerous for brands.

In 1999, company Just for Feet sued ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi, which created its Super Bowl ad that year. The complaint for the lawsuit (which was later dropped by Just for Feet) alleged, “Saatchi & Saatchi assured Just for Feet that the commercial Saatchi conceived and produced would be well received by the public.” The complaint asserted that “as a direct consequence of Saatchi’s appallingly unacceptable and shockingly unprofessional performance, Just for Feet’s favorable reputation has come under attack, its reputation has suffered, and it has been subjected to the entirely unfounded and unintended public perception that it is a racist or racially insensitive company.”

However, the Super Bowl does not produce bad advertisements; it only airs them. Even good agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi (who created Tide’s epic “obnoxious stain” ad for the 2008 Super Bowl) sometimes have bad ideas – really, really bad ideas that inevitably beget bad commercials. But, just like in football, not every play leads to a touchdown. Sometimes quarterbacks have bad nights. It’s just the way things go.

“Only in advertising, in the industry of advertising, would you have someone in the industry complaining that the entire world sits up and takes notice of our craft. Give me a break,” Venables says laughing. “Now I don’t think the industry always does itself proud because I think that sometimes we put a lot of dreck out there on the Super Bowl, [but] I’ll take the eyeballs and the attention for one day a year on advertising.”

It’s a sentiment also shared by Brandon. “It puts into public debate what’s good, and what’s bad. Whereas most of the time, people don’t really talk about advertising. So anytime you can get the everyday consumer talking about your industry, and what you do…it’s good," he says.

“It’s a day we’re elevated to pop culture status and we have to accept that, and we, as an industry, have to do our part which is to deliver the good content,” Venables says. “But, to complain that people are paying too much attention to the Super Bowl, or it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, or look at our ads for the rest of the year – you know what, we’re lucky they’re looking at them that one day.”

The Magic of the Ad Bowl

Based on the trends of the past few years in Super Bowl advertising, this year should be one of the best. Volkswagen, a favorite of the last few years, is back in 2013 with a spot that will feature some of the Internet’s meme superstars. Mercedes is looking for a hit with its racy ad featuring the voluptuous Upton. And, Tide is back with more stains.

"I’m always interested in kind of seeing the underdogs that you don’t necessarily anticipate seeing in the bowl game,” says Drewniany. And, like tens of millions of other Americans on Super Bowl Sunday, Brandon will be watching and judging the ads. "I’m looking forward to watching them. You know, I’m just like everybody else. I sit back and say, ’yeah, that was good,’ or, ’that was bad,’" he says, adding he’ll even record them on the DVR for viewing again later.

Like the game itself, millions of ad fans anxiously await the outcome, cheering for the brands that have drawn, in some cases, followings larger than many professional sports teams. And, that excitement is precisely the allure of the Super Ad Bowl. Is this the year for Audi to take it all? Or, is it Tide’s year, or Anheuser-Busch’s? Or, maybe an underdog will surprise everyone, and win America’s enduring affection.

“Having your ad play on the biggest stage imaginable, with millions and millions of viewers across continents, is a pretty darn exciting thing,” Venables reflects on seeing the final product after months of hard work. “Commercials are so fleeting in our lives, so you watch a three-and-a-half or four-hour game…[and] you stole the audience’s attention for 60-seconds, but that’s still pretty fleeting in the grand scheme of things.”

“But it’s worth it. It’s a fantastic experience,” he adds.

It’s crazy to think how one 60-second spot can become such a deeply-imbued cultural artifact in our society. But, that’s the beauty of advertising, and why the Super Bowl is such an exciting time for the industry. Here, the work of hundreds of advertising creatives is on full display for the entire nation who, for one day out of the year, actually begs to be sold. Some ads will fumble, and others will find the end zone. However, there is always that one chance -- a truly magical moment -- where an ad strikes a perfect chord that reverberates like a tuning fork for the heart and soul of national character, and rises to eternal glory like the storied heroes of gridiron legend.

But, that’s why we come back, year after year, after year. Begging for more.

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