Advertisers trod a cautious path through their Super Bowl creativity this year. Most did not want to dwell too heavily on the Covid realities of the world around them or to inappropriately ignore them.
Escapism was high on the menu with a heavy dose of nostalgia and celebrity faces to grab our attention and seamlessly sidestep the dilemma.
For me, Paramount+ was the champion of this, blending stock and new footage from its biggest shows into a slightly bonkers creative masterpiece, which climaxed with Patrick Stewart at the top of a mountain.
They didn’t stop at buying just one spot though. They had a series throughout the evening, bringing us along for the ride.
The Super Bowl is a night of advertising creativity but, from a media perspective, what always stands out is the price – this year the going rate was around $5.5m (£4m) for each 30-second chunk.
With a UK hat on, the prospect of blowing a respectable brand’s full-year media budget on a single TV spot may seem a little insane, and you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that.
More than ever this year marketing Twitter and publications seemed to light up with the question: What else could your $5m buy?
There was talk of the immense digital opportunities you could have unleashed instead, and a hint that sometimes the only reason to book a spot is because your boss has a massive ego.
While Oatly’s chief executive starring in his own ad did little to disprove this theory, there are many good reasons why a Super Bowl ad makes perfect media sense, for the right brief:
1. Unique reach to light audiences
To make a planning-based argument, it is helpful to understand media planning.
Converting an ad into cost per impressions (CPMs) and comparing that with elsewhere loses sight of the biggest advantages that tent-pole TV moments bring.
First, they offer unique reach. Those aren’t 100 million impressions spread across lots of different placements, which actually build considerable frequency and thus reach far fewer unique people. Those are 100 million unique people tuning in to see it once.
Second, the sheer size of the audience tells you they’re packing in the light TV viewers and media consumers, too. You aren’t just reaching the low-hanging fruit who would be watching your ad in a repeat of Jeopardy. These are people who can be incredibly hard and valuable to get in front of.
Trying to build reach to these sorts of light viewers on a normal schedule means buying a broad range of prime-time spots and building up large amounts of wasted multiple impressions to heavier audiences.
Beyond a TV buy, there simply aren’t many media channels in the US that ever reach more than 100 million people to begin with, however many impressions you buy. Facebook and YouTube aside, you’ll be piecing together patchy programmatic data signals before you know it.
Professor Rachel Kennedy at Ehrenberg-Bass institute did the math(s) last year and, contrary to more simple sums, it pretty much stacks up for a truly mass-reach brand, without further excuse required.
Go book your 2022 spot, folks!
2. Fraud-free and highly viewable
I’m a big fan and exponent of the power of digital marketing, but I’m the first to admit its vulnerabilities too.
One of the great things about buying a Super Bowl ad is that you’ll know it has run because you’ll see it on the air, and your phone will light up with messages from friends and colleagues delighted to see it too.
While you should never underestimate a fraudster I’m not aware of anyone ever booking a fake Super Bowl spot.
Many of the “you should have spent your budget elsewhere” arguments point to digital, and while some buys can be similarly direct, many do open the floodgates for potential fraud and misdirection.
As programmatic and connected TV options offer tighter targeting and controls, keep an eye on the risks that early adoption brings too.
Of course, even in the majority of cases where your ad is indeed safely run somewhere, most price comparisons are looking at impressions or far lighter-weight impacts, not full 30-second “view-throughs” that a TV ad in such a crucial live moment generates.
There’s no question of viewability on that big screen. People aren’t scrolling past or clicking skip. They’re seeing the whole thing.
There are many times in media planning where a lighter contact with a bigger audience at higher frequency is a good thing, but also clear brand-building reasons to spend more time with folks for a change.
3. Paying attention
Sure, people turn away from their TVs during the ad breaks. They go to fix a snack or pop to the toilet, or they open their phones and catch up with the world around them.
While Dr Kennedy’s calculations took this into account, it’s worth saying that the Super Bowl is also a bit of an exception to this rule.
It is true that not everyone is as fascinated by the ads as marketers themselves are but they are a genuine part of the spectacle.
This year the NFL curated a show of the best Super Bowl ads of all time, and their on-screen presenters made frequent references to the set pieces off the pitch.
Years of standout ads have created an expectation, which means when the ad break starts, people are leaning in.
That does put pressure on a brand to come through creatively, and there’s no bigger canvas to crash and burn on, but if you pull off great creativity, you can be guaranteed people will be watching.
4. Earned media and viral effect
People are not just watching but talking to and sharing their favourite moments with far-flung family and friends.
It’s no secret (though oddly absent from most opportunity-cost calculations) that some of the biggest bang from a Super Bowl ad is the buzz you can create around it.
Some of that means throwing more money into the pot (comparisons of which ads got the most YouTube views are entirely pointless without transparency over their associated paid media spends) but there’s a genuine opportunity for PR and earned media.
The teased-out Super Bowl ads, especially those with a mainstream cultural hook or a famous face to put forward, are a mainstay of US daytime TV in the build-up to the big game.
Networks not only play these ads out for free to their viewers, they have entire segments dedicated to dissecting them and their stars.
The huge rise of celebrities in ads in recent years is in part due to the extra value you get from putting them out on the circuit.
If you think buying TV ads is too analogue for a marketing strategy, then remember just how widely they are shared digitally too, and that a well-integrated Super Bowl ad is much more than just the spot itself these days.
Some ads do in themselves create genuinely talkable moments and viral distractions.
Reddit tried to truly maximise this in 2021 by running just a five-second ad in select cities and trying to spark an online conversation around how clever they were.
Others have tried well-worn routes of throwing a competition at the spot to drive engagement. You could have won $1m for counting Mountain Dew bottles, or even a chance to fly into space.
While I’m not a fan of these sorts of engagement metrics, the fact remains any analysis of a Super Bowl ad’s impact that doesn’t look at the full-impact picture is missing the point. This can easily start to match or beat the eyeballs on the game itself.
5. The long-term value of fame
So what if, ultimately, it does come down to a brand manager or CMO wanting to do something to be made famous – isn’t that our job as marketers?
Sure, $5m buys you a huge volume of clicks and performance inventory but putting that money into a Super Bowl ad buys you a significant advantage over the competition even in those performance spaces.
You should need only a cursory understanding of Les Binet and Peter Field’s work to realise that long-term brand-building is a critical part of growing a business, and that fame is ultimately one of the most successful drivers of that.
It can be hard to put a finger on it but there’s a certain shared understanding of the quality and value of a brand that comes from seeing it in a Super Bowl spot that you’re never going to get from hundreds of the best banner ads.
You know that not only did you see the ad for your Jeep, your friends and neighbours saw it too, and none of them will question you owning one now.
Clearly not every brand can afford this luxury, but for those with the broad mass reach and scale to justify it, then it certainly can stack up.
You don’t have to look further than the advertisers themselves to get some further endorsement.
Procter & Gamble is the world’s largest brand advertiser and a regular at the big game – its focus on ruthless measurement and effectiveness means it keeps coming back because it knows it works.
The Super Bowl is also home to some of the most obviously performance-driven brands too.
Online businesses like TurboTax, Fiverr, Uber and Door Dash are poster children for digital native companies with growth hacker strategies aplenty, and yet there they all are in the big game.
These are equally sophisticated advertisers, which will get the payback not only in the immediate spike of traffic they’ll see during the game and in the following days, but many more times as they continue to compete in those performance spaces and beat out their competitors that didn’t show up.
That’s how marketing works – in the long and short term.
This has been a bit of an academic exercise for UK advertisers, which most likely will never need to weigh up whether to buy a Super Bowl spot, but it scales down nicely to whatever event TV looks like in your market.
Big sporting events, The X Factor finals and The Great British Bake Off – anything that gets an unusually large audience filled with light TV viewers to share a moment together is worth far more than the sum of its CPM parts, which is exactly why the Christmas ads in the UK always launch in whatever the biggest live show at the time is.
I’m certainly not saying don’t buy digital advertising, or that your $5.5m budget might not deliver more for your brand if spent cleverly there – it’s just not as obvious a media planning decision as simple comparisons might have you believe.
Jerry Daykin is EMEA senior media director at GSK Consumer Healthcare, and this week hosts Automated Creative’s special Super Bowl episode of Advertisers Watching Ads