Super Bowl ads: why bother?

Friday 30 January 2015 by Drew Heatley

It’s the showpiece final; the jewel in the NFL crown; the “Big Game”. This weekend, the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks go toe-to-toe in the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona in Super Bowl XLIX.

The football game commands a national audience of 112 million people, so it’s little wonder that its ad breaks have become almost as iconic as the event itself. But three decades on from Apple’s seminal “1984” ad, I wonder if the value in a 30-second Super Bowl ad spot has dried up?

One size doesn’t fit all

TV is still the largest slice of the global advertising pie. After more than 70 years, brands are comfortable with the format – they know what they’re going to get. But that’s not going to last. Worldwide spend on TV ads totalled $213.5 billion in 2014, equating to 39% of the $545 billion spent by advertisers. As online ad spend continues to grow, however, TV’s share is expected to fall to 37% by 2017 – and it’s only going to fall further still from there.

The main reason for this shift? While TV ads guarantee brands a large audience, their impact, as with many forms of analogue advertising, is traditionally tough to quantify. As retailer John Wannamaker famously said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” The raft of personalisation options offered by digital ads is gradually causing advertising dollars to flow online. Brands might reach 100 million Americans with a Super Bowl slot, but how many of those viewers are part of their target audience – and how many even want to interact with their brand? Even if you’re generous and say it’s a tenth of the audience, $4 million for a 30-second ad looks very lofty indeed.

Be smarter, be social, be mobile

There’s no reason for consumers to accept anything less than a personalised brand experience anymore. I drive an Audi, but the company’s 2014 Super Bowl ad slot did nothing for me. As an Audi driver and brand investor, that’s a nightmare for the company. It was a hollow experience because I’m used to having an ongoing, personalised dialogue with the brand. Audi regularly updates me on brand developments with communications based on the data it has on me, like the type of car I drive. A TV ad just can’t deliver that.

Social media and the targeting tools that have matured with networks like Facebook and Twitter take the uncertainty out of who views your communications. Why spend $4 million for 30 seconds when you can spend a fraction of that on a content-led campaign that is guaranteed to reach consumers who have shown an actual interest in your brand? Consumers are hungry for content in all forms – brands are already leveraging this appetite by providing branded content that promotes and entertains – and often provides lasting value to the consumer.

Facebook is the primary channel for these personalised, content-led ads – and the social network is making good use of its treasure trove of data as the Super Bowl approaches. Facebook is enabling advertisers to target consumers who have shown an interest in their brand and who plan to watch the Super Bowl using granular segmenting tools. When you consider that 50 million people had over 185 million interactions on the social network (both via desktops and, crucially, smartphones and tablets) during last year’s Super Bowl (and that figure is almost certain to rise this year), it’s already becoming clear where the clever money will be headed.

Weaker market

That clever money is growing in size – at the expense of TV. The US TV market is going through a tough period at the moment, with Time Warner, Discovery Communications and NBCUniversal all reporting worse-than-expected ad sales. A combination of economic uncertainty and advertisers’ desire to try new digital market channels is to blame. And reports this week that claim pre-Super Bowl ad buzz is down from 2014 are unlikely to restore confidence. As I mentioned earlier this month, the traditional TV ad format is in trouble – just how much trouble will become clearer after the dust has settled this weekend.

Sure, the Super Bowl’s a national spectacle and the ads in the breaks are still the jewel in the US TV ad market crown. But while they may be entertaining, their value ends there. The ad game has changed and brands are suiting up for other advertising channels – the way the market’s going, it might not be too long before the Super Bowl ad extravaganza enters the end zone.

Drew no longer works at The Frameworks


  • Advertising
  • NFL
  • Brands
  • Social media
  • Sport
  • Super Bowl
  • Television