Super Bowl: The greatest TV commercials show on earth

Forget about Cannes and the myriad of other events where creative folk gather to stroke each other's egos, the biggest advertising festival in the world takes place in a single afternoon on the first Sunday in February when American Football's Super Bowl is broadcast in the United States.

The size of the audience alone would be enough to guarantee the Super Bowl's importance to the American industry but there's much more to it than that - the commercials shown during the event have attained a status of their own and the broadcast has become a veritable showcase of advertising brilliance.

In addition to the hugeness of the audience - the 2011 Super Bowl's 111 million viewers makes it the most-watched television programme in American history - there are three other reasons why the event has become such a magnet to advertisers.

First, American Football lends itself to television advertising... the sport is played in a very fragmented fashion with convenient breaks in the action to accommodate commercials.

Second, Super Bowl Sunday has become a de facto 'holiday' with enough people gathered around televisions in their homes to make it the second biggest event after Thanksgiving.

Third, and most importantly, the event is now so strongly associated with new advertising that American football fans have been known to stay at home to watch on TV rather than attend the game itself... just to ensure they don't miss out on the commercials .

In fact, according to a survey by Nielsen, 91% of Super Bowl viewers are interested in watching these ads - that's 100 million people positively engaging with television commercials as they're being broadcast; enjoying and talking about them with family and friends. Eat your heart out, YouTube.

The challenge for advertisers is to make their effort one of the most talked-about commercials of the day and this need ensures the Super Bowl is a slugfest of big-hitting communication. But how do you make your commercial stand out among the dozens being broadcast for the first time?

Mostly by making your commercial funny but not always. Last year Chrysler asked Clint Eastwood to deliver a portentous sermon during the half-time interval. It was big and it was bold but because of his GOP sympathies, many assumed Eastwood was attacking President Obama and it gained as much ridicule as admiration... all the more so after Eastwood's ill-judged conversation with an empty chair at the Republican convention.

Increasingly, advertisers are quite literally trying to get ahead of the game by releasing their Super Bowl commercials online in the week leading up to the event. This, though, is a double-edged sword - a sensational new ad for Mercedes has been extremely well-received after it was shown on YouTube but both agency and client must be wondering whether they could have maximised the impact by saving it for Sunday's broadcast.

VW have a different reason for wondering whether it was wise to release their Super Bowl ad ahead of Sunday. The spot – featuring a white Midwesterner sporting a broad Jamaican accent - has prompted accusations of racism and it’s even been suggested that the German car company might pull it at the eleventh hour. Now that it’s out there, it will probably prove counter-productive to withdraw it but it remains to be seen whether they will or not.

In this country, we have nothing to compare with the Super Bowl. Once upon a time, football's FA Cup Final had a similar kudos in sporting terms but because the majority of people watched it on the BBC in its heyday, there was no opportunity for it to become a major advertising event. You have to look to 'The X Factor' for anything that resembles the advertising excitement generated by the Super Bowl. In 2011, advertisers were queuing up to début their new commercials during the talent show but that turned out to be a one-off - nothing like it happened in 2012 as audience figures fell. In the absence of anything comparable, British advertising aficionados can only watch and admire as the Americans offer an annual exhibition of advertising's reach and power during the Greatest Commercials Show on Earth.

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