Brand Purpose Sustainable Transformation Media Planning and Buying

What’s the carbon cost of the Super Bowl advertising frenzy?


By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

February 1, 2023 | 8 min read

Super Bowl advertising in 2021 generated as much CO2 as 100,000 Americans that year. Does the industry’s showpiece event need a green overhaul?

Super Bowl

Experts say brands need to urgently address the environmental impact of Super Bowl ads

When advertisers consider the cost of Super Bowl advertising, their first thought is likely the $7m fee for a 30-second slot. But what they might overlook is the cost to the planet.

And that cost is significant. Programmatic ad platform Good-Loop estimates that in 2021, Super Bowl advertisers generated around 2m tonnes of CO2 through digital advertising. For context, that’s the same amount of carbon emissions produced by around 100,000 Americans in one year.

It calculated this using data, which suggests 56 advertisers and their 67 spots brought in more than 6.3bn TV ad impressions, 26m online views, and 64bn social impressions.

“Some of our sources suggest that there were around four billion subsequent digital ad impressions during the first two weeks in February, in the lead-up to, and around the Super Bowl. When you think around one tonne of CO2 is emitted from every one million videos, you’ve quickly got some very scary numbers,” said Ryan Cochrane, chief operating officer at Good-Loop. He stressed that the associated online content, and the subsequent emissions they drive, is as damaging as the hero spot it’s designed to accompany.

“Looking at 2022’s ads, the top 15 ads generated something close to 470m views – so the longtail is huge,” he adds.

There is a challenge in the sheer number of variables of a Super Bowl campaign that make it difficult to assign accurate numbers, but there is no doubt that the scale of the problem is significant.

How do we solve it?

The good news, says Cochrane, is that there are a number of things advertisers could do if they wished to minimize the carbon impact of any campaign - especially a Super Bowl one.

“Measurement, and understanding the scale of the problem is naturally the place to start,” he says. Good-Loop currently offers its Green Ad Tag, which allows brands and agencies to track the CO2 emissions their online campaigns generate in real-time through a dashboard.

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However, Anne Coghlan, chief operating officer and co-founder of Scope3 says measurement is only the first, important step, “reduction should be the ultimate goal, and measurement doesn’t automatically translate to reduction,” she tells The Drum.

“Once brands measure and understand the carbon impact of their campaigns, they need to take actions to reduce that impact. Shifting spending to lower carbon inventory sources and buying through the most direct inventory pipelines can lower the emissions of a campaign.”

Cochrane says there are plenty of moves advertisers can make to clean up supply paths, “little things, like swapping file formats for ones already supported within browsers, are really easy to do.”

Additionally, says Coghlan, optimizing for lower carbon inventory can also make campaigns more effective. “Our data shows a direct connection between bad advertising and carbon emissions. Ads that run on ‘made for advertising’ sites have a much higher carbon footprint than ads on standard websites and don’t provide clear value to advertisers.”

So what about the brands?

While Cochrane is concerned with the carbon footprint of Super Bowl ads, he says it also offers an opportunity for brands to speak about the importance of sustainability and push for greater change. “The Super Bowl is such a showpiece for advertising, it’s one of the few times the general public is really interested in ads, rather than seeing them as a nuisance.”

In recent years, brands have capitalized on the Super Bowl’s mass audience to spread awareness of the urgent need for action on climate change. Though the presence of high-carbon sectors, such as automotive, remains contentious.

Earlier this month, Toyota announced it would be sitting on the bench for 2023, having advertised at the event since 2017. A move that came in the same week the brand was called out by activist group Brandalism for greenwashing.

Other major car brands including Nissan and BMW are also surprisingly absent from this year’s line-up, though it would appear that Korean manufacturer Kia is expected to appear. It remains to be seen whether it will use the opportunity to highlight its EV or hybrid offerings.

But whether it’s Matthew McConaughey pushing for greener working environments for Salesforce, or Hellman’s tackling food waste, Cochrane says we cannot forget that these big advertising moments come at a price.

“From an ad industry perspective, it’s great that we actually get a chance to show the positive side of our industry,” he says. “But we have to be mindful that there is an increasing carbon cost to these events.”

Coghlan concludes that it’s imperative the industry change how it plans its media and factor emissions into every campaign from the start. “Carbon emissions have to be a metric brands think about moving forward. Whether it’s for a highly targeted digital-only campaign or an over-the-top Super Bowl ad with an activation, brands must balance the carbon cost of things like production and distribution with all their other campaign success metrics.”

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