Bigger bucks, smaller bang: Super Bowl defies logic

05 Feb 2018  |  Dominic Mills 
Bigger bucks, smaller bang: Super Bowl defies logic

Amazon's Super Bowl ad, by Lucky Generals

Brands are paying more money than ever for increasingly cluttered Super Bowl ad slots, but it doesn't seem to put them off, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: How the ASA deals with idiocy

By the time you read this, America’s legion of Monday morning quarterbacks will be dissecting the Philadelphia Eagles’ victory over the New England Patriots in last night’s US Super Bowl. Up and down Madison Avenue too, adland’s sofa-bound quarterbacks will be doing the same, chewing the fat over the 100 or so TV commercials that aired during the game.

Me, I don’t care much about the result. The ads...well...hmmm. I sometimes watch them and think: “Notionally we speak the same language but WTF is that about...”.

Nevertheless, ads are sometimes a good way to take the temperature of the national mood, and the Super Bowl is a good place to start. The test: the split between ads that are funny, those that are rational, and those that seek to pull the heartstrings.

It’s also a good way to see the extent to which US advertisers and agencies are picking up on the hot trend of the moment - the power of emotion to aid long-term memory recall and brand imprint. It’s a cultural thing, but I find that American ads that do emotion veer between the saccharine-sweet and the mind-numbingly earnest.

You can check it out via both Unruly and System1. The latter has given the teasers its five-star emotion/Kleenex rating here and is also live testing on this year’s bunch, and will be giving us the stats on emotion.

But I’m more fixated today on the bigger picture, and what it tells us about the advertising and media eco-system.

Some basics first, thanks to figures from Kantar/Nielsen. This year advertisers are paying just over $5m for a 30-second slot, compared with $3m in 2010 and $4.1m in 2015.

There’ll be more clutter, with the number of slots tending to increase - 96 in 2016, 102 last year.

Meanwhile audiences to the Super Bowl are approximately static, varying between 106m and 114m (111m last year). That’s an audience share shading between 45% and about 48%.

This year...who knows? It depends on the teams, the drama of the match and so on, but is also set against a backdrop of growing public disenchantment with the game itself evidenced by an average 10% decline in TV viewing for regular games throughout the season.

The online effect is so far minimal (about 1.5m last year) and since viewers are for the most part obliged to watch via the host broadcaster’s app, the impact on ad impressions is not worth worrying about. That’s for now; if the platforms get stuck into the Super Bowl, who knows what the effect will be.

So there you have it: bigger bucks, smaller bang. And, given the total ad revenues from the Super Bowl ($510m last year versus $400m in 2015 and $250m in 2010) trend remorselessly upwards, there is no sign that American brands’ love affair with the Super Bowl is waning.

Indeed, if anything it is the opposite. Clearly, advertisers believe that there is no substitute for a big-screen, communal, big-audience, live event offering both fame and ‘constructive’ wastage. And no viewability/bot/fraud/sound-on/off (well, maybe) issues either. Or, come to it, none of that verifiable measurement bollocks too.

Thus, you could say, the failings of one part of the media eco-system highlight the strengths of another.

It is, for advertisers, a good, clean and wholesome experience. And they know it, judging by the number who return year after year: not just the blue-chips like Pepsi, Mars, P&G, Budweiser, Coke, and Kraft, but also the likes of Avocados from Mexico, Turkish Airlines and Squarespace.

Right, back to that ‘emotion/schmotion’ stuff. By common consent, Hyundai’s ‘A Better Super Bowl’ jerked the most tears last year, featuring some US military overseas who were apparently able to watch the Super Bowl with their home-based families thanks to some VR tech.

This year, Hyundai promises to outdo 2017. Help...I’m going to drown in an ocean of sentimentality, all the worse if other advertisers decide to follow its lead.

One that isn’t thankfully is Amazon (I know, who knew it had a corporate sense of humour) in this 90-second spot for Alexa created - and how nice is it to write this - by our very own plucky challenger agency Lucky Generals. In the ad, Alexa loses her voice and is replaced by the likes of Antony Hopkins (as Hannibal Lecter), Gordon Ramsey (as his effing and blinding self), Rebel Wilson and some Americans of whose identity I had no idea - apart from Jeff Bezos, who should stick to his day job of plotting world domination. Anyway, they’re all a bit naughty.

Emotional, no. Fun, yes. To my mind, it’s how Super Bowl advertising should be.

It’s depressing. We’re a nation of prudes and moaners

As with the Super Bowl, if you want to track the mental state of the UK, the ASA list of the most-complained-about ad, published last week, is as good a proxy as you’ll find.

It’s not an edifying picture. Number one was KFC’s magnificent strutting chicken, followed by Moneysupermarket’s dance-off; a Dove ad about breastfeeding; a ad featuring a lesbian kiss; an O2 ad featuring two blokes kissing; an RB ad for a toilet air freshener called V.I. Poo, which banishes the smell of ‘devil’s dumplings’; and a (as-then Dixons/Curry’s) Christmas ad in which a mum teases her children about the joys of a ‘traditional Christmas’ (i.e. with no whizzy TV/games consoles etc).

Now you might think the KFC ad made the chicken into a proper hero figure, but no. It was disrespectful (to chickens, can you believe it) and depressing. Moneysupermarket was homophobic, Dove might encourage anti-breast feeding sentiment, the gay ads sexually explicit, Dixons denigrating Christianity/promoting materialism...and so on.’s enough to make you weep. Where are the famed British virtues of humour, tolerance and forbearance? Gone, lost in a swirl of prudishness and a hair-trigger propensity to take offence.

Yes, I understand how social media has changed the game given its ability to allow the offended to jump rapidly on any bandwagon and organise their outrage in such a way as make it look bigger than it really is.

Of the most-complained-about ads, the ASA deemed none broke any rules. Two of the ten ads were voluntarily pulled by the clients (Dove and McDonalds), but that’s a different story.

Hats of to the ASA. It’s an island of good sense in an ocean of idiocy. Long may it remain so.

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 5 Feb 2018
“Coincidentally, eMarketer put out a snippet this morning with figures on which platforms digital ad buyers think deliver the best ROI, with unsurprising, but informative, results (Google and FB top). And it could be applied to Superbowl ad buying, too. Rationally, $5m (plus creative etc) could be much better spent on a well-planned 6-month campaign, merchandising, or even price cuts; but Superbowl ads are bought on gut feel and ego, as much about seeing one's brand in the big game, and a feeling that it has some immeasurable ROI beyond the short-term buzz. As a viewer, it makes for a great spectacle - this year's Tide ad was a standout, IMO - and as a marketer, well sometimes one just stops thinking about work and enjoys the ads... ;c)