3 lessons from Super Bowl commercials for driving ad engagement year round
Once a year, they arrive. They’ve changed a lot over the decades — bigger budgets, more celebrities, unabashed virtue signaling — but always carry the same colossal expectations. And one Sunday a year, we all pay attention. But once the Super Bowl confetti is swept away, what can brands learn about keep consumers interested all year round? React chief exec Frank Maggio explains.
This year, every 30 seconds of ad time will cost as much as $6.5 million, and brands didn’t think twice about the price tag because for one night and at one time, they can reach more people than any other time of year. Even in 2021, when the Super Bowl had its smallest audience since 2007, with barely more than 90 million viewers, it was still the most-watched primetime telecast of the year, with more than double the viewers of second place (also an NFL game — the NFL claimed eight of the top 10 spots).
Unlike every other day of the year, people not only watch the commercials, but look forward to them as much as the game itself. They pay attention with the heightened awareness that comes with something novel and exciting, recalling and talking about ads for days, weeks, and sometimes years.
Why should that only be true one day of the year? If we look a bit closer, we can understand why Super Bowl ads are outliers and why they don’t have to be. By rethinking how we approach advertising, we can ensure ads are as engaging and essential as the content they’re paired with.
1. Create a communal experience
The Super Bowl is a cultural event. There’s a certain gravitas to sharing this phenomenon with 100 million people every year that keeps everyone coming back. How else will we share our favorite commercials on Facebook or debate the winners and losers with coworkers in the morning? In an increasingly fragmented, always-on, time and place-shifted media environment, live Super Bowl commercials are the only commercials that qualify as shared common experiences at a societal level.
People want to engage with other people. They want to discuss, they want to compete. Most ads offer little in the way of community, especially when compared to “content” like sports, movies, and the latest binge-worthy series. By finding ways to turn ads into events, you can attract more attention and build the kind of anticipation that brings people back.
2. Build anticipation
Super Bowl commercials command so much attention that some brands release them before the big game and rack up millions of views and dozens of news articles before the ads even air.
Everyone wants to see how the major brands and the upstarts will use their 30-second spots. For one night, commercials aren’t the interruption to content, they are the content, with each brand showing up in its Sunday best. Anticipation fuels attention.
It’s the same reason you pay more attention to a package from FedEx than an envelope full of ads you get in the mail. No one looks forward to another envelope of ads. You know exactly what to expect — not much. The package, however, holds the promise of something new and exciting and special. It creates the kind of anticipation that advertising needs more of.
3. Encourage active participation
Super Bowl ads have tried to do this for years with competitions and contests that carry big prizes. Every other day of the year, commercials interrupt. People are disengaged. They turn to their phones and social media, looking to connect and for a more active experience, more adrenaline. They want something to participate in.
The Super Bowl offers that opportunity, whether it’s a contest or Super Bowl Squares or joining a conversation about the game or the commercials. Voting for the top 10 Super Bowl ads vies for the mindshare of the game’s MVP. Participation drives engagement.
We see this across entertainment. American Idol follows the same essential formula as Star Search did in the 80s and 90s, but with one crucial difference: audience participation. The audience can vote for the winners. That’s how it remained the most-watched prime-time program for eight consecutive years.
Super Bowl ads succeed not because of their creativity but because of their delivery. They have built-in community, reward viewers’ anticipation, and give us something to participate in, if only on a vicarious level. Certainly not every ad will get outsized attention and engagement, but by working to replicate the same elements that bring viewers back to Super Bowl ads every year, we can create better ads for both brands and consumers.
Frank Maggio, CEO and Founder of React, an experiential adtech and entertainment company.