Is advertising in the Super Bowl worth it?

You'll never guess that the answer is: it depends

Since the last Super Bowl, the world is, not to put too fine a point on it, different. The U.S. has a new president; a pandemic has brought with it a deleterious effect on everything, from “the economy” to how we view and treat our neighbors; a reckoning in how society understands the injustices Black and brown men and women have faced for centuries. 

One thing that is remarkably the same (especially given the above, which we’ll get to more detail in a moment): the exuberant price tag of running a Super Bowl spot.

If you want to put together a 30-second commercial to run during the most-watched event of the year, it’ll cost you about $5.5 million for air time alone. It can cost a few million more to actually produce a spot, from paying talent to your agencies.

And this year, for a slew of reasons—from loss of revenue due to the pandemic to opting to “do good” with their spend—advertisers and buyers are looking at the “is spending in the Super Bowl worth it?” question a little closer than normal.

And predictably, like many things in this world, the answer lands on “it depends.”

One argument goes like this: If you are a company that spends hundreds of millions to multi-billions of dollars each year in advertising and marketing, advertising in the Super Bowl makes sense. 

“It’s not for everybody,” said Aaron Goldman, CMO of Mediaocean, an advertising services and software company. 

While Goldman said that running a Super Bowl spot is worth it, he did add that a Super Bowl spot is not a good idea for everyone. 

“But for the brands that do do it, they get their money's worth,” he said. “Every brand is going to have their own formula of what value means and what worth it means.”

Mediaocean analyzed TV social lift* over the past month for 38 brands who ran Super Bowl last year or are scheduled for this year’s game. The agency found that brands booked for 2021 had a combined TV social lift of 74 percent vs. 67 percent for brands that are not participating this year. 

The company indicates that this shows a halo effect around Super Bowl ads, as brands generate buzz on social media in anticipation of their participation in the game. For example, Amazon is participating this year and generated 146 percent social lift and Pizza Hut saw 126 percent lift. Budweiser is not participating this year and only netted 86 percent lift while Audi’s lift was 77 percent.

*Methodology: To assess the TV ads generating the greatest response on social media, Mediaocean fuses data from its proprietary social affinity database with 2 billion+ interactions across Facebook and Twitter with Kinetiq Teletrax data covering ad occurrences on more than 1,300 U.S. channels. By comparing each brand’s social media engagements in the two-minute period after the start of a TV ad to the brand’s average social media engagement rate, Mediaocean calculates the TV social lift. Ultimately this is a measure of how much more likely a viewer is to engage with the brand on social media after seeing one of their TV ads. The time period for this analysis was Dec. 22 through Jan. 22, 2021.

There is also a sense of the haves versus the have-nots at play; those that can afford to drop seven-plus figures on a spot and those that can’t.

For example, he said, the haves can afford to surround the Super Bowl spot with an actual campaign. Doing a one-off for the Super Bowl is a waste of money and time, he said.

Ideally, a brand can use the Super Bowl as a starting point for a year-long campaign. But that takes money. If your advertising budget is $50 million for a year, can you justify spending 10-to-20 percent of that in one shot?

“The Super Bowl is a case of the rich getting richer,” Goldman said. “Those who can afford $5 million can afford big campaigns across the 360 digital linear experience; that extra amplification can milk off the rest of the year. Unless you have the budget you won’t get the value.” 

Brad Geving, vp of media buying and ops at Tatari, a data and analytics shop, looks at it this way: having the direct attention of 100+ million people for 15-30 seconds, on a big screen, is huge. The commercials are part of the viewing experience and people look forward to them. 

“What does that really mean? You have a viewer's attention for 15-30 seconds on a big screen,” he said. “Compare that to the viewing experience of an Instagram feed-- your creative must make someone stop scrolling and keep their attention beyond a few seconds. On a lot of days, some people may turn to their phone during the commercials- but that will happen significantly fewer times on Sunday.”

But, as we mentioned, it’s not cheap. When one evaluates the opportunity cost of spreading that investment across more media, Geving said, “it becomes readily apparent that on the surface, all other things being equal, a spot in the Super Bowl is not worth the amount of media you could buy otherwise. So in order to make it worthwhile you need to get something extra out of it that other media cannot provide.”

When you start to factor in the halo effect of having a Super Bowl spot—the trade press (and my lord is there a ton of trade press), the earned media on social and mainstream media, running the ad leading up to the game but also for a period afterwards—buyers and advertisers can start making their argument for giving the network that airs the Super Bowl some cash.

Kantar, last year, said that the Super Bowl has generated $3.6 billion in ad revenue the last 10 years.

But, what if you take the argument that actually advertising in the Super Bowl is not worth the price tag? That the ad doesn’t actually “perform.”

If you’re using the spot for immediate direct lift proportional to cost, it will “almost ultimately fail,” said Sean Halter, CEO of the agency Connectivity Marketing and Media.

Even beyond the immediate lift, some say it’s still not worth it.

“It’s not worth $5 million for a sport that’s been steadily decreasing in ratings,” Bennett D. Bennett, an independent consultant told me. “This isn't just on traditional broadcast but streaming as well. If you’re steadily declining as a sporting event, clearly something needs to change. Media companies should have to adjust.”

The WSJ reported in December amid a run of bad ratings for the the NFL that

TV networks are feeling the strains of disappointing NFL ratings, as they are forced to restructure deals with advertisers to make up for the smaller audience, and their opportunity to make money off remaining games during the lucrative holiday season narrows.

According to Statista, even though viewership has crept up the last three years, overall NFL viewership has declined over the last decade. 

And mainstay Super Bowl advertisers, like Budweiser, Pringles and Toyota, to name a few, have said that they’re putting their Super Bowl ad spend toward pro-vaccine messages

Coke is also riding the pine this year. “This difficult choice was made to ensure we are investing in the right resources during these unprecedented times,” spokesperson Kate Hartman said.

And for smaller brand, the investment may not be worth it, Geving said, though he noted that “additional benefits come from the increased efficiency felt in other marketing channels. Brands will start to see the efficiency of their social media improve, for example, as name recognition helps people feel comfortable with the brand when encountering a banner ad.”

He also added that other objectives may be in play, like “signaling to competitors that they are a real threat (and maybe should be an acquisition target?) and the Super Bowl offers that opportunity to show the world that the brand has arrived.”

But Bennett believes that a brand has to consider more than just the eyeballs or that you’ve arrived, arguing that maybe it’s not in a brand’s best interest to support a league that has had real problems of social injustice, has handled the private and public concern of concussions by burying its head in the sand, and he says, how sloppy the NFL handled this season due to the pandemic.  

“If we say ‘the future is female’ or it’s driven by Black people, you need to invest more money that openly supports those communities, and that’s not going to be done when you waste $5 million for media buy and a million or more to shoot a commercial,” Bennett said. “Part of it is racial equity; part of it is consciousness as a brand, but the third is: how are you going to get ahead of the curve if you put money towards a halftime show (or closely adjacent to it)? I don't think it's smart; especially for a brand today to think that you’ll think you’ll get most of your eyeballs this way.”

Indeed, some brands are choosing this option. Like Planters, according to CNBC:

Kraft Heinz’ year-long circle-of-life campaign around Mr. Peanut culminates Monday with a new storyline and an announcement that Planters will take the roughly $5 million it would ordinarily spend on a Super Bowl ad slot and instead route that money to recognize people doing charitable acts. The brand is calling them “acts of substance,” a play on positioning the snack as a substantive alternative to options like potato chips. 

If 2020 was a year that companies (let alone the public) grappled with the effects of systemic racism, all while racing to say how they support equality, 2021 will be about how companies are measured against what they actually say and do. 

(And just a reminder that the way the NFL treated [and continues to treat] Colin Kapernick, who took a knee in protest of police brutality against Black people, has led to many of the NFL’s challenges.)

“If you have a budget (talking hundreds of millions of dollars) and you’ve got a big launch this year, or you’ve got a rebranding, or a need to change the perception of your company, or take a big stand on corporate social responsibility, a Super Bowl spot is a great way to do that,” Goldman said. “But it’s one thing to make a statement you support BLM, but it's another to change your board of directors, or supply chain, to reflect the BLM movement. This is another case of you have to back up your talk. If you go on record with a Super Bowl spot, you have to be there the rest of the year to deliver on that brand promise.”

And of course, through all these changes, we have to also consider the consumer, Bennett said.  “The consumer’s lifestyle has shifted. There will always be core football fans, and maybe if the NFL does treat racial justice and become a safer sport in a way that doesn’t alien fans, then maybe the Super Bowl will be worth watching again,” Bennett said. “I don’t think it’ll ever be the prime time it once was, even 10 years ago.”

So there you have it. Is it worth advertising in the Super Bowl? Maybe so, maybe not. 

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Phish, “Stash”

Some interesting links:

For understanding how GameStop employees feel:

  • GameStop employees on r/WallStreetBets: 'They’re rubbing [it] in our faces.' (Input)

For platforms:

  • Facebook Knew Calls for Violence Plagued ‘Groups,’ Now Plans Overhaul (WSJ)

  • Facebook developing a tool to help advertisers avoid bad news (Axios)

  • Survey says: Never tweet (NYT)

  • Ford is partnering with Google to bring its cars into the modern era (Protocol)

For media companies trying their hand at community:

For branding:

  • Huawei hires ad giant WPP to promote its brand in the US as it tries to overcome Trump ban (Business Insider)

For gift guides:

  • The Verge’s Valentine’s Day gift guide (The Verge)