Super Bowl confidential: Inside the world of the Big Game ad

Over the last 30+ years, the Super Bowl Advertising Industrial Complex has grown to truly gargantuan proportions. This year, 30-second spots airing for the game will cost north of $5m, and that’s just for the air time.

Include the cost of the celebrity star, the special effects, the exotic location and you’re pushing $7.5m. Now add in an army of marketers making sure that your message is also being tweeted, Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Woowoo’d – not to forget in-store and event marketing as well – and we’re talking about a $10m campaign.

Having worked in the advertising industry and the sports marketing industry over the years, as you might imagine I know plenty of folks with first hand experience. I reached out to many of them to get their opinions and stories from the trenches about what it’s like.

Stuart Elliott was the New York Times advertising critic for more than 20 years, chronicling and critiquing Super Bowl ads. Needless to say, he’s seen it all over the years:

"Almost every year, most everyone who bought a Super Bowl ad puts on a full-court press to get reporters' attention. I got phone calls, press kits, visits from PR people, the whole nine yards. Of course, the secret was that once someone actually was in the game, we would all want to write about that brand automatically.

"Eventually, most folks figured that out as the years went by and realized that all it took to get us interested in coverage was to say they had bought a spot in the game... though sometimes I would check that with the network broadcasting the game to make sure the brand was really a Super Bowl advertiser!"

For some, the opportunity to work on a Super Bowl ad is more than just the pinnacle of a professional career, it’s also a chance to relive childhood memories. Today, most of us are familiar with Volkswagen’s Darth Vader spot from 2011, but Star Wars also made an appearance back in 1997. Pepsi had a tie-in with the special editions of the original trilogy and Gavin Blawie, currently the head of digital, Team Epic/MKTG Dentsu Aegis Network, was working for BBDO.

Blawie says: "Shot by Kinka Usher for BBDO, this ad debuted in the Super Bowl in 1997, and officially kicked off PepsiCo’s Special Edition/Episode 1/Lucasfilm alliance. As the wide-eyed kid who 20 years earlier had first seen Star Wars in the theater, visiting Skywalker Ranch and reading the legendary prequel script under lockdown was beyond surreal.

"The highlight was when I was able to personally instruct our 'Darth' – sadly not Dave Prowse, though his suit from Empire was the real deal – how to properly swing his lightsaber (less epee, more two-handed broadsword)."

Industry veteran Jim Othmer is all too familiar with the how the Super Bowl ad sausage is made:

"Usually it starts with a rumor that the client is thinking of running a spot in 'the Big Game' (don't want to get sued). The folks that typically work on that account will often get first crack but upper level fear of failure usually limits that non-compete period to about an hour or so. Soon other teams are brought in, stirring up the competitive juices, escalating anxiety and the overall bitterness of the incumbents.

"When clients and creative leadership still feel like 'we're not quite there', despite the dozens of ideas on the wall, the freelancers are brought in. Soon after that is when the client decides to look at customer generated work and crowd-sourcing. I've worked for agencies that have successfully persuaded clients to do the right thing and others that have agree to go with the 'send us your stories' approach."

Like Stuart, Barbara Lippert has been a involved with the advertising industry as a journalist for many years, frequently appearing as the industry expert on TV morning shows prior to the Big Game, to talk about the commercials. If you think you’ve started to get tired of all the hype, try being Barbara:

"Super Bowl ad fatigue set in for me a long time ago. My son was born 20 years ago on 26 January, the day of the Super Bowl that year. I remember sitting in the hospital with him in my arms and thinking, ‘thank God, I don’t have to review the ads for tomorrow’s Adweek’."

This Sunday, Peyton Manning won’t be the only one looking to cement their legacy, and if he ends up being remembered more for his Nationwide or Papa John’s ads than what he does on the field, then maybe some lonely copywriter will have their dreams come true.

Rick Liebling is an independent marketing professional based in the New York area, he’ll be live-tweeting the ads @RickLiebling


Rick Liebling

All by Rick