Does Super Bowl Spending Equal Super Returns?

In comparison to other American traditions like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl is considerably new, yet it has already become an unofficial national holiday. Even more interesting is the advertising phenomenon during the Super Bowl, which has become an American tradition of its own.

The obvious advantage to advertising during the Super Bowl is the number of people your campaign can reach at one singular moment in time. With Pittsburgh and Green Bay in the game this year, will campaigns actually hit their target markets? Football-wise, these are two markets that boast massive fan bases, yet as far as DMA rankings are concerned, Pittsburgh is only #23 and Green Bay is #71*.

Clearly, these commercials are expensive advertising investments for priceless exposure, but are they worth the price?

If reaching consumers is the main advantage, advertisers can rest easy knowing that the Super Bowl is one of the few events considered "TiVo proof." Viewers will be watching the commercials, instead of changing the channel or fast-forwarding through to the game. Ratings have climbed over the past four years, with last year's game surpassing the finale of "M-A-S-H" as the most viewed telecast in history at 106 million viewers. Facing these big numbers, the pressure for ads to succeed is just as big, if not bigger. And at the water cooler on Monday, everyone will be discussing not just the game, but also their favorite advertisements.

The truth is that these ads can make or break a company's entire year. Remember those ads of the '90s? A failed advertisement could end up being a waste of a company's money and time. Even worse, if the game is a blowout, what happens to ads in the fourth quarter? Commercial time was budget-priced last year at $2.5 to $2.8 million, according to CBS News -- not so this year with the price back up to $3 million. That is a big-ticket item, plus the cost of the commercial, which must produce the "wow" factor with the audience.

Super Bowl advertisers have to think in different terms. You can't just deliver a good commercial; it has to be the great and memorable part of a fully integrated campaign. Perhaps this is why companies like Papa John's opted to promote just a giveaway this year, without advertisements during the game.

Making headlines last week, Papa John's is offering free pizza for America, if the Super Bowl heads into overtime (which would be the first time in NFL history). Papa John's decided to use the giveaway strategy, especially with Pizza Hut buying a game-time slot for the first time in years. Or maybe the pressure of creating a memorable ad was too much to bear. Whatever the case, its strategy seems to be working so far, generating a lot of buzz among the media and on Twitter and Facebook.

From an Engage:Sportspiece by Barry Janoff, we learn there is a resurgence of car companies airing ads both during the Super Bowl game and pre-game. Companies like Mercedes and BMW aren't satisfied with just a 30-second spot, they are getting in on the social media and giveaway trend. BMW is offering a two-year lease on a new X3 model; and Mercedes has a twitter-fueled contest with a giveaway of two C-Class coupes to followers of the winning team. These auto companies seem to be reaching for a younger audience, but will their ads only result in awareness, or will this ignite a car-buying season?

No doubt the giveaways and rewards for customers are a unique aspect of this year's Super Bowl advertising, perhaps a way of rewarding customers for their perseverance through the difficult economy and hoping to catch their attention and any new-found dollars. The companies, for the most part, are classic, blue-chip American companies, which are ready to get back in the proverbial advertising ring.

So like any boxing match, expect this first round to be fairly tame, middle-of-the-road type ads, no one going for the "knockout punch," so to speak. Look for ads focused on the consumers and America, with a patriotic feel and/or "green" theme. But with a potential NFL lockout looming, maybe these companies think their Super Bowl ads are worth the price while pro football is still around.


*Article amended post-publication.
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