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The next 50 years of the Super Bowl: Advertising will be less about reach and more about ROI

If the first 50 years of Super Bowl advertising were about watermark moments for creativity, the next 50 will be defined by cost-conscious brands deciding how they keep getting value from those costly ads.

Few events can pull in as many viewers as Sunday’s match but at $5m for 30 seconds, media buyers interviewed by The Drum are questioning whether that cost equation will soon hit a tipping point. With the costs of the ad slots now so high, advertisers are under more pressure than ever from their chief financial officers to join up the audience from ad to purchase.

It’s a prospect that suggests the ads themselves take a backseat of sorts, working as part of a bigger campaign born online that then gathers momentum and awareness in the build-up to the match. What was once advertising’s equivalent of a smash and grab, with ads like Apple’s exalted ‘1984' and Oreo’s reactive ‘Dunk in the Dark’ transcending the hype of even the games themselves, is now evolving into something more drawn out.

Super Bowl 50 in numbers

  • 115 Million - predicted viewership of Super Bowl
  • $5m - the price of a 30-second Super Bowl ad
  • $1.1m - the cost to reach 111 million Amercians in a single day where they consume video online.
  • $1.9m - the cost to run an ad programmatically across premium sport sites every Monday night for the duration of the football season.
  • 13 Million - the number of weekly viewers of Monday Night Football
  • 40% - the percentage of its Super Bowl budget Pepsi (the title sponsor of the half time show) has dedicated to digital.

Numbers provided by Tubemogul

Procter & Gamble teased the rewards from this transition last year when it pushed out the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign online beforehand, using the Super Bowl as the campaign’s conclusion. It had already gained more than 80m views worldwide prior to its debut and scored the most social buzz during the game. It's little wonder, then, that brands like Snickers and LG are calling on every trick to get people to watch their spots, given that the price of a slot during the match has rocketed 76 per cent over the past decade, according to Kantar Media.

A digital playbook for Super Bowl advertisers

“If you have the right message, it’s a good media buy,” Honda’s assistant vice-president of marketing Tom Peyton recently told The Drum to outline the brand’s return to the event after a year out in 2015.

A full version of the ad (see below), which announces the car brand's return to the truck business, has been online for days, in the hope that a flock of sheep humorously singing to Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’ will cut through the chaff ahead of Sunday’s match.

BMW,Marmot and Verizon have adopted similar strategies, a sign that advertisers have found a digital playbook to ensure their budget-busting investments on TV create far longer-lasting buzz online. It’s no longer enough for advertisers to pay for a slot and strong creative to have a good Super Bowl; there’s more onus to extend the campaign well beyond the event itself.

More than an event

It’s why it’s becoming more important to secure premium placement in Super Bowl related searches and programmatic TV campaigns, although with the latter it’s still very early days. Two media agencies The Drum interviewed for this article said they were running programmatic TV campaigns that they couldn’t talk about, a sign that advertisers are still learning how to use the nascent technology to target multiple screens.

More than a third (37 per cent) of the time spent viewing Super Bowl ads on YouTube last year happened before the day of the game itself, and that figure will undoubtedly rise this year due to just how many brands are trying to extend the life of their game day ads.

This situation is perhaps a “window into the future”, said James Kirkham, founder of Holler and former global head of social and mobile at Leo Burnett, where brands allow their advertising to flourish and “catch fire online” and the “very successful ones are then given a place at ad breaks such as the Super Bowl almost like having a handprint on the Hollywood walk of fame”.

The next 50 years for the Super Bowl

Despite 114 million people watching the Super Bowl last year, the majority (51 per cent) saw its ads exclusively online and not during half time, according to an Unruly poll. In addition, last year’s Super Bowl ads were shared more than ever before, clocking up over nine million shares. The game may be one of the last safe bets in traditional advertising, with a record $377m being spent on TV this year, and yet social undeniably makes the TV moment far bigger.

“If the first 50 years of Super Bowl advertising have shown us anything, it’s that advertising can drive commercial returns for businesses,” said Scott McLean, co-founder of consultancy The Intelligent Marketing Institute.

“The next 50 years will take that need for ROI to the next level. As the advertising costs soar, not just for the 30 second slot but for the entire campaign, then there will have to be a rigorous focus on the end-to-end audience engagement journey. How will all the activities, including the ad, be structured to take the audience on a buying journey? That’s the question the marketing teams must grapple with because that’s what their chief financial officers will be demanding.”

Even though the Super Bowl has managed to maintain its staggering TV ratings, a marketer’s need to get more bang for their buck has seen some treat it as a testing ground for new strategies, according to Juan Delgado, chief executive of sports content and media group Perform Media.

None more so is this evident than in how Facebook, Google, Instagram and Snapchat hope to use that appetite from brands for more expansive strategies to wrestle a greater slice of the media pie from TV.

PepsiCo has ploughed some 40 per cent of its Super Bowl spend on digital, which will include a Promoted Moment during the match alongside a custom emoji of music notes floating out of a can of the drink that will automatically appear when someone tweets #PepsiHalftime. While advertisers such as Butterfinger and Mini USA plan to exploit Facebeook’s vast video real estate, which amounts to 100m hours of video viewed per day, to turn their Super Bowl ads into autoplay versions and full-page mobile ads.

With platforms like these offering the equivalent of a Super Bowl moment every day, some media observers like Mark Boyd, founding partner of Gravity Road, believe more brands will want the “Super Bowl digital moment, just not the CBS invoice”. However, as Kirkham argued, people actually stay to watch the Super Bowl ads ­- a rarity now that content is on-demand - and while you can buy digital media for the Super Bowl, advertisers aren’t necessarily sure that people are going to watch their carefully crafted ads.

“Digital has changed things dramatically, and is able to supply comparable reach all the time, which is why the Super Bowl spot is now way more than about reach,” he continued.

“It came to the fore because it quite literally had more eyeballs on it at a given moment than at any other part of the year. But with the advent of digital saturation, and so much superseding this, it has managed to grow into something else. It is now almost a creative showcase, a chance for brands and their agencies to flex their might and muscles. It is becoming more of a stage to show off, to put out pioneering work or to merely gloat at the competition.”

Ever since Oreo famously took the online limelight with its reactive ‘Dunk in the Dark’ Super Bowl stunt, other brands have been scrambling to follow. And with video considered to be just as, if not more effective as TV advertising, at a fraction of the cost, future Super Bowl campaigns will need to work harder to be effective.