Can Advertisers Still Score With Super Bowl Ads?

Super Bowl Sunday means almost as much to advertisers as the game does to the players. And with primo spots during ABC's broadcast estimated at $1.6 to $2.2 million, more than a few companies who ante up are likely to wake up on Monday morning feeling as if they'd taken a few reps with the offensive line during the game.

Why? That's when the water-cooler buzz will rise to a deafening roar, as armchair critics loudly voice their opinions on which ads were sharp, which were dull and which didn't make any sense at all. With investment and exposure for this one-day event so great we decided to ask a host of marketing experts whether advertising on the NFL's holiest of holy days is still a risk worth taking. Predictably, they had a lot to say on the topic. Read on.

Rob Gelphman, Gelphman Associates, President
Advertising on the Super Bowl is a fool’s paradise. Yes, everyone will know you. But will everyone want you? Do Super Bowl ads activate your audience? Is the Super Bowl, the event itself, the best time and place to put forth the call for action that is the essence of advertising? Methinks not. That being said, if you are a large, overbearing corporation whose ego is superficially charged by being able to afford $1.3 million for 30 seconds of fame, fine. Go for it. But in times of tight budgets, dispersed interests, and the rise of niche media for reaching targeted audiences, it might be wise to rethink advertising during the most hyped — and inherently inefficient — media event of the year.

Sure, your target audience is watching. So are a lot of people who are not your target audience. A billion-plus worldwide viewing audience does not necessarily translate into actual customers. IBM is a computer-services company (more than 60% of revenue and 50% of profits stem from this) and General Electric is a financial-services company (similar breakdown in numbers), yet not a single individual will actually interact with these particular companies for their respective computer or financial services. These are decisions made by committees with heavy involvement by senior management. None are swayed by an ad during the Super Bowl — though they might feel better about the decisions afterward.

Dot-coms blew it all on the Super Bowl a few years ago, reasoning that a billion people worldwide would visit their websites. And maybe they did. But the dot-com companies did not put forth a value proposition, and we all know what happened. You may have remembered the ad, but you still did not know why you needed the website.

Super Bowl advertising, with its unlimited budget and creative license, is great for ad agencies. But it is of dubious benefit to the advertiser.

Kellie Buckley,, Director of Marketing Communications
The Super Bowl has always been good to us. We launched our brand during the 1999 game with the “When I grow up” spot and have been there ever since. It’s the place where we launch our campaign for the year — it’s our big kickoff. But even though we’ve been there for five consecutive years, it’s not an automatic for us. We do a lot of analysis. When a Super Bowl ad ceases to be a smart marketing and business decision, there are obviously other places we can spend the money. Unlike a packaged goods company, we know the impact of our ad immediately. We get as many as 30,000 résumé submissions a day throughout the year, but on the day after the Super Bowl we’ve gotten almost 60,000. The overall site traffic was once up 167% on the day after.

What lured us was the sheer number of people who tune in to the game. In one 30-second spot, you can generate the same attention that would otherwise take you weeks or months to get. And look at some other regular advertisers — Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi, Visa. You keep good company when you advertise during the Super Bowl.

The expectations are what make the Super Bowl such a challenge. You need to deliver in 30 seconds. You need to do more with those 30 seconds than any other time during the year. And obviously cost is a factor. You can’t blow your entire marketing spend for the year on one 30-second ad during the game. That ad isn’t going to give you lift for the whole year — it has to be a part of an integrated campaign.

What’s fun is that a lot of us go to Super Bowl parties where people don’t know that we work for Monster. We hear the comments, both good and bad. For me, that’s the best kind of feedback — it’s raw and it’s real. And the day after, we’re critics just like everybody else. Just like the rest of America, we can’t wait to talk about who did well and who didn’t.

David Blum, Eisner Communications, Senior Vice President
I did my graduate school thesis on Super Bowl advertising and have done research the day after the game ever since. We always try to find out how many people are tuning in to the game just because they have the perception that the best, most entertaining commercials are going to run during it. In the mid-1980s, the number was 2% or 3%. Now, it’s somewhere between 10% and 12%. Another thing I’ve found is that the more intangible the product — like insurance — the more difficult it is to have an impact on the viewer in terms of purchase behavior. On the day after the Super Bowl, if you say, “The following companies and products were advertised yesterday. How likely are you to buy them?” you can see increased purchase intent for, say, Lay’s Potato Chips or McDonald’s or Pepsi. The Christopher Reeve ad was for a financial company, but people couldn’t even remember its name without looking at a list, much less make a decision to buy the company’s products.

Clearly the Super Bowl is a great place for a new product introduction or the introduction of a new company name, like Cingular or Accenture. Typically you don’t introduce something and then go away, so the Super Bowl can be effective as the tip of the iceberg for any major campaign. On the other hand, ran three spots — about $5 million of paid media — during the game a few years back but didn’t follow up, and look what happened to them.

Another aspect is the high expectation level in terms of creative. People expect that the funniest, best ads they’ll see all year will run during the Super Bowl, and this can be really dangerous for advertisers. You don’t want the takeaway to be “That ad wasn’t funny,” which can stain what you’re trying to do from a sales standpoint. That’s why a number of fairly regular in-game advertisers, like M&Ms, have moved to the pre-game show — they sponsor part of it or do something similar. They benefit from association with the Super Bowl, without actually running during the game.

Jason Kanefsky, Media Planning Group, Vice President, National Broadcast
There are more reasons to advertise during the Super Bowl than not to advertise. If you’re in launch mode or if you have a brand-new selling proposition with mass-market appeal, that’s probably the key reason to do it. If you want to bring a brand back, that’s another. There’s nothing on against you. And it’s great for the sales force, who can go out to clients and say, “Hey, we’re on the Super Bowl.”

But advertisers shouldn’t run during the game unless they have a reason to promote something in January. Like the movie companies — why would they advertise a movie that doesn’t come out until the summer? And if you have a huge campaign already running, I don’t know that you need to buy the Super Bowl on top of it. The Super Bowl shouldn’t be the cherry on the top, it should be the missing piece of the puzzle — “We can’t reach 50% of the audience in one shot any other way.”

The creative has to be the biggest overall concern for advertisers. The last thing you want is not to do well in the ad trade magazines. If your ad ranks in the bottom five, somebody’s getting fired.

As for the dot-coms that bought all the ads a few years ago, I was recently talking to a guy who works for one of the venture capital firms. He said that it wasn’t the marketing people who wanted to do all the Super Bowl ads, it was the VC guys — it was a pure financial play designed to drive up the stock price. It made some of these small companies look like big hitters. I wonder what’s going to happen with the ads this year, mostly due to the situation with Iraq. If we’re at war, that changes the tone of the Super Bowl and the tone around it considerably. Advertisers have to take into account that we may be at war when the game hits. If we are, you can’t necessarily do a clever ad.

Greg Clausen, Cramer-Krasselt, Executive Vice President/Director of Media
My opinions about Super Bowl advertising are based primarily from experience, especially with Master Lock. I worked here during three of the years Master Lock did the Super Bowl, and I was here when we took them off. When they initially did the Super Bowl, they used their ads to talk to their trade more than to consumers. The ads basically said, “Hey, we’re a big player,” and they worked. And we got a ton of PR just for being there. Master Lock was almost always featured in the stories about Super Bowl ads — you know, the little guy playing with the corporate behemoths.

Because of the creative element, it’s almost impossible for too serious of a product to be advertised during the Super Bowl. That’s a problem — everyone remembered and liked the gerbil being shot out of the cannon, but nobody remembered the advertiser. The tone of the day isn’t good for somebody with a serious message.

But you can’t really argue against the effectiveness of Super Bowl ads. Master Lock used to do a day-after advertisement-recall survey called “the Super Poll.” We measured Super Bowl ad recall against prime-time ad recall. Even on a cost-adjusted basis, we found that it was considerably more effective for advertisers to run during the Super Bowl. The ads were recalled at more than double the rate.

Jeff Hicks, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, President
When it comes to generating broad awareness and creating momentum, few advertising vehicles can compare to the Super Bowl. The most compelling reason to advertise during the game, and the reason we continue to look at it for clients, is that there are very few shared media anymore. When I come to work the next day, I can ask somebody, “What did you think of X commercial?” and know that he or she will have seen it. You can’t get that with just about anything else — magazines, the highest-rated shows, anything. Shared experiences like Super Bowl ads are so important for building momentum for brands and putting them into the pop culture.

The Super Bowl is not something an advertiser should do halfway. We advise clients who want to advertise during the game to buy two spots instead of one. If you have only one, you could get lost in the fray. Clients who want to play at this level have to go in big time.

We’ve also warned clients that the expectations in terms of entertainment are really high. In this environment, people essentially say, “You’re going to do something great for me here.” There’s one standard of entertainment for late-night infomercials; there’s another much, much higher one for the Super Bowl. It ups the ante on the creative, and the potential for disappointment is tremendous.

Frank Vuono, 16W Marketing, Founder
Is a Super Bowl ad worth it? It depends. The Super Bowl is a destination and NFL ratings this year are up, so the obvious benefit of advertising during the game is the huge guaranteed number of eyeballs. If you do decide to put all of your marketing eggs in one basket, the Super Bowl can be a vehicle to get instantaneous name recognition. There’s no better venue than Super Bowl Sunday for that. Also, the ads have become an event in and of themselves.

However, if you don’t have a regular promotion, a major advertising budget and a communications program, you shouldn’t be in the Super Bowl.

From what I hear, the up-front sales for the game this year have been solid. In lean financial times like these, the cream rises to the top. The companies that can afford to be there — the ones that are going to be around for a long time — will be there. It’s a good time for them to capture market share, probably at the expense of their competitors. ABC isn’t going to have any problem selling the primary positions during the game. Maybe it will be a little tougher for them to fill the pre-game shows.

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