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Why Super Bowl ads are the ultimate money-for-nothing CMO splurge

By Jeri Smith | CEO

January 27, 2017 | 5 min read

At a time when marketing budgets are tighter than ever, with CMO churn at an all-time high, it’s astonishing that Fox is selling out of Super Bowl LI spots priced at around $5 million per 30 seconds.

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In most cases, this is more than shocking: it’s indefensible.

With endless chatter in the advertising industry about reliance on metrics and sharp analysis to guide media buying and strategy, you’d think such a “data-driven” approach would be especially relied upon when it comes to one of the most expensive marketing exercises of all time. CMOs who have done their homework should know a few data points about Super Bowl advertising. For example:

  • Advertisers can expect about one-third of Super Bowl viewers to notice their spot.
  • Only one-third of that 33% will know which brand was being advertised.
  • Among that group – around 10% of total Super Bowl viewership – a single advertisement has only a one in five chance of persuading anyone to think differently about the brand.

Advertisers whose ads haven’t worked in the past continue to get sucked in by the hype. The thinking goes, “This year, it will be different! Our ad will really generate attention and buzz!” The result: ads that focus on entertainment at the expense of telling a brand story likely to persuade consumers. And, yes, some of these ads do get talked about in the trade press, and maybe even by consumers. But most have no chance of delivering a positive ROI for the brand.

One of the things Super Bowl advertising is known for is being a platform for new and attention-getting concepts in commercials. But the first time consumers see something totally new from a brand, they’re very unlikely to know which brand the spot is promoting. It makes no sense to spend millions of dollars – on the network time, on the production, on the multiple agencies working on the strategy and execution – for a spot that will deliver next to nothing for your brand.

A whole other layer of pointless yet costly advertising activity can be found on social media activations around the Super Bowl. Brands pour massive amounts of money into branded social media conversations, which mostly consist of brands tweeting at other brands and complimenting them on their ads. The social consumer? He’s just not that into you, marketers.

Unique and surprising can be effective in Super Bowl ads – as long as it builds on something the brand has been doing all year long. For example, one amateur mistake that advertisers seem to love making year after year is using the Super Bowl as a platform to launch a new celebrity spokesperson. Except nobody associates the brand with the celebrity, and the investment is wasted.

Far better to use the Super Bowl to amplify the impact of a spokesperson already connected to your brand, as H&M has successfully done with David Beckham over the years. Or, use fresh, new spokespeople, but within the context of a familiar campaign concept, Snickers did this in 2016 with their “You’re not you when you’re hungry” spot featuring Willem Dafoe as an actress playing Marilyn Monroe.

In the end, CMOs will do what they want, and that often means a Super Bowl campaign that burnishes their résumé but delivers zero return to the brand. Some, like Frito-Lay’s CMO, are willing to end a 10-year run at the Big Game when it’s obviously not a worthwhile investment. But even though more CMOs are being fired now than ever, the Super Bowl seems like the annual audition for executives who want to showcase their shiniest work for their next potential employer.

Nice work if you can get it – and for those who are misguided enough to continue paying for it.

Jeri Smith is chief executive at Communicus

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