Why Super Bowl ads don't work hard enough to justify their enormous cost

Full disclosure: two of our sister agencies at Project: WorldWide – ARGONAUT and Motive – will each feature a commercial at the Super Bowl this year. I very much like both spots for VW (ARGONAUT) and Pepsi (Motive). But that’s not the point.

The Super Bowl commercial wankfest has officially begun. Spots to tease the spots are airing ad nauseam. Lists and rankings are being drawn up by USA Today and the trades. Brand flacks are furiously lobbying for top slots for spots that haven’t run yet. And I am writing an op-ed piece about it – the paragon of literary onanism.

Admittedly, Super Bowl commercials are accepted gauges of brand relevancy, and the ad industry brings its A-game to the Big Game. But with recent reports stating that only 20 per cent of Super Bowl ads actually boost sales, I cannot condone the sheer excess and waste that the ad community continues to ignore.

Sure, people talk about the ads after the game is over but not because of their intention – not a single person I know has ever actually bought something because of a Super Bowl ad. People talk about these spots like they talk about an eccentric uncle: he’s always pretty funny after a couple of drinks, but no one wants to drive him home at the end of the night.

It has become increasingly clear that Super Bowl ads don’t work as hard as other sales-driving tactics. Let me explain.

The price for a 30-second spot at the Super Bowl inexorably increases annually. This year, the average price for a half-minute brand story will reach $4m. For reference, ad agencies aired 46 commercials during the Super Bowl in 2013. At this year’s prices, brands will pay $184m to air their ads.

Imagine if advertisers and agencies took that money and did something good with it. Like help the world, their neighbours, a non-profit, a hospital or university. Or their actual customers. You know, real people. Not the ones that play them on TV.

Last year during Cannes – another prime example of our industry’s misguided excess – a pair of Dutch creative directors launched a website called Instead of a Lion. Reacting to the record-breaking $25m that agencies collectively spent in submission fees for their own work, the website calculated how much other stuff could have been bought for that amount. The exercise ended with a startling revelation: instead of spending the money on congratulating itself, our industry could have given 1,345,943 families access to emergency water kits in a war-stricken country like Syria.

So, if $25m of Cannes money can help more than one million people, how many people could $184m of Super Bowl dough help? This simple math presents an enormous opportunity for our industry.

Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands report showed that 54 per cent of us don’t trust brands anymore. And 71 per cent of us think that brands and companies should be actively involved in solving social problems, but only 20 per cent of brands worldwide actually do so.

If we – the ad industry – actually redirected our Super Bowl ad budgets to a bigger purpose, would people trust brands more? Would brands actually be able to boost sales by more than 20 per cent if the Super Bowl was no longer the bastion of the big spenders but a forum of true creativity and meaning? Because if our industry’s sole purpose is to simply be creative on behalf of our clients, then why only display it once a year for 30 seconds? There has to be something bigger than just the Big Game.

Max Lenderman is the founder and CEO of School (schoolhelps.com), a strategic and creative firm that creates purpose-led stories and products for brands, companies and organizations. Boulder-based School is part of Project: WorldWide.

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