North American football’s Super Bowl is one of the biggest annual sporting events globally, played between the winners of the National and American Football Conferences in the NFL. Every year, companies compete to secure one of the coveted 30-second advertisement slots and establish long-term deals with the league.

The most lucrative deal is currently held by Anheuser Busch, which gives the brand pouring rights over five years at all 32 team stadiums and is valued at $230 million per year. With revenue like this involved, the evolution of Super Bowl advertisements is a key domain for brands who can afford the price point for a slot. The 30 seconds of airtime can cost up to $7 million and this number is continually rising.

GlobalData Sport spoke to Conor Dignam, managing director of Media Business Insight (MBI), Danny Edwards, co-editor of media company Extreme Reach, Justin Zambuto, senior vice president of marketing agency 160over90, and Patrick Haas from CSM Sport and Entertainment to discuss the evolution of advertisements at the Super Bowl and their predictions for companies looking to advertise at future championships. 

What makes an effective advert for the Super Bowl?

Dignam: The Super Bowl is a showcase for America’s biggest brands and budgets. As usual, it’s ads that feature celebrities, humor, or bit-scale ambition that are usually the most memorable and make the biggest impact. [Technology giant] Apple’s famous 1984 ad spot directed by Ridley Scott launched the Apple Mac, Budweiser’s Whassup campaign, and VW’s The Force in 2011. If you can make people laugh or gasp, then you’ve got a shot of standing out in the Super Bowl contest.

Edwards: From a creative point of view, generally speaking, the commercials which cut through are those which include either humor, celebrity, or existing and recognizable IP. The ones that combine two or more of these often do even better and win viewers over. There are exceptions to this, like last year’s incredibly simple Coinbase QR Code spot which ignored all of the above and went with a QR code bouncing around the screen like a 90s screensaver.

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Zambuto: One has to think of the Super Bowl in terms of its reach and relevance, but the NFL is much more than one game. While most focus on the NFL’s biggest game broadcast and commercials, many brands are activating in and around the host city as part of a larger integration across the NFL ecosystem.

The most effective marketers appreciate the full NFL season – from the NFL draft through the regular season and playoffs, into Pro Bowl and then the Super Bowl. The passion for the sport, the game, and its players extend much further than the big game. Brands that are bringing their assets to life around the calendar can maximize their investments and impact.

In terms of the Super Bowl itself, it is such a unique occasion that reaches well beyond the NFL’s huge fan base. Every year, we love to see the ways in which brands are stepping up and in – some in more profound ways that others.

The most effective brands appreciate the opportunity, and – frankly – the responsibility that comes with the annual celebration of American football. They bring fun, memorable, creative, big names (sometimes unexpected talent), and find the right ways to spark conversation.

Simply airing a TV spot that lacks creativity might drive impressions, but it risks missing the real opportunity to drive the type of relevance fans have come to expect. I also believe having a sound strategy that begins before the game and runs during and beyond the broadcast optimizes the opportunity and the investment.

Brands should consider releasing a tease of the spot, create custom content, and leverage influencers and talent prior to, and during the game to drive engagement.

Finally, brands need to be prepared to jump on the social conversation and earned opportunities that come with being a Super Bowl advertiser to help steer the narrative, maximize reach, and extend the window of relevance as far as possible.

Haas: Making a Super Bowl ad is a tricky business. Christmas aside, it is the one time of the year that the audience actually care about the ads, and that audience just so happens to be the biggest single-day live audience in the US. This level of interest and scale is why the brands pay the big bucks, and why the stakes are so high. While there is no single secret to cutting through the frenzy, I see three themes in the ads that land.

Firstly, they are topical. They capture a current moment, mood, trend, or topic. In short, they are relevant. I think back to a time of great uncertainty, and to Chrysler turning to the dulcet tones of Clint Eastwood to offer a halftime talk to America. Over a decade on and that message is arguably more poignant today than it was then.

Secondly, it is authentic. The ad is recognizable and consistent with the brand’s essence. For thirty years, women’s health brand Always has been supporting girls in the unsettling transition to puberty, which is why its 2015 ‘Like a Girl’ ad felt right and hit the mark.

Finally, the surprise factor is an important one. Be funny, weird, unexpected, shocking, nostalgic, or emboldening. Whatever you do, make people feel something. Do this and the ad will get through the ‘who was that again?’ barrier which trips many of the runners and riders in this particular race.

How has Covid-19 affected sales of the advertising slots and are they back to full strength now?

Dignam: The pandemic pushed the pause button on some of the biggest brands and usual messages. It just wasn’t the right time for the kind of advertising associated with the Super Bowl and many big brands bowed out while public health messages were still dominating the headlines. Now it’s back in full swing and like lots of events has come back with new post-pandemic energy. Even in an economic squeeze, we’ll probably see record prices paid for slots this time around.

Edwards: For many people, the Super Bowl is an annual advertising showcase wrapped around a game of American football. By making the commercials a part of the show, and effectively challenging brands to entertain the biggest TV audience of the year, the NFL has maximized both its audience and its revenue stream.

Zambuto: The NFL has done a tremendous job building the Super Bowl into the annual ritual it is today. I would argue that the NFL, the media rightsholders, brand partners, and us fans all benefit from the excitement and publicity around the Super Bowl.

Haas: Covid affected the sentiment of the ads, that much was clear. While brands opted not to reference it directly, recovery and redemption were common plots. Examples like Budweiser teaming up with the Oscar-winning Director Chloé Zhao to remind viewers that ‘down does not mean out.’

[US national broadcaster] Fox has released year-on-year ad costs which suggest rather emphatically that demand has not skipped a beat. While there was no increase during the pandemic itself, the growth has been continuous, with this year up half a million dollars at $7 million for a 30-second segment.

How has the NFL benefitted from the publicity garnered around the Super Bowl and its ad revenue?

Dignam: The scale of the ads and big campaigns and celebrities has become part of the Super Bowl story. People are watching for the ads now as well as the sport, so the NFL benefits from that profile and buzz.

Edwards: Traditionally the Super Bowl is filled with food, alcohol, and automotive brands. Anheuser Busch [Budweiser], Stella Artois, Busch, Frito Lay, Toyota, Kia, General Motors, and Chevrolet are all stalwarts of the Super Bowl.

Over recent years tech, finance, and telecom companies have also dominated, with Amazon, Meta, eToro, Squarespace Expedia, and making up much of the advertising output. These are the big-hitting tech companies, but it’s also a good place for upcoming tech companies to make a splash.

Haas: The Super Bowl is a make-or-break weekend. Careers, both on the field and off it, are built or broken in a moment. It has therefore become the pre-eminent proving ground for marketers, advertisers, and creatives – brand and agency-side – seeking to make their name. This clamor for notoriety has solidified the NFL as America’s biggest stage for advertising.

The size of the audience, and its appetite for traditional advertising, have made the Super Bowl the envy of the industry, and an outlier in modern times. The product is seemingly immune to the forces at play in the wider sports industry, such as the fragmenting interests of younger generations.

Finally, I think the Super Bowl is the unerring reminder – to brands, fans, and skeptics – that live sport is unmatched in its ability to break through and build relationships with otherwise distracted, or distrusting, audiences.

What kinds of companies advertise at the Super Bowl and what profits do they make?

Dignam: America’s biggest consumer brands want to be seen and talked about in the Super Bowl advertising slots. It’s a badge of honor for all the big global players from Coca-Cola, Pepsico, beers like Heineken or Budweiser through to the likes of Amazon or Volkswagen.

It’s often a battle of the super brands with big budgets and big ideas. Like all great advertising – if the message cuts through then brands can get a massive boost. The Super Bowl often kicks off campaigns that run for years.

Edwards: The opportunity to engage such a sizeable audience and reach fans, both avid and casual, is open to any brand looking to make a statement and committed to the investment that comes with the reach and significance of the Super Bowl.

We see brands looking to establish themselves or make a statement, new product launches, or brands focused on inserting themselves into popular culture. The Super Bowl broadcast is so much more than a 30-second spot. Brands should consider how to activate around the spot – how to create a “surround sound” campaign that amplifies the spot across social, PR, sponsorship, and owned media.

If celebrity talent appears in the spot, brands should consider how to further leverage that person to bring the spot to life through interviews and bonus content. Some brands extend the life of the campaign through sponsorship, events, and digital experiences. If brands don’t look at the spot holistically and just treat it as regular ad inventory, they risk limiting the reach and impact that comes with this significant cultural moment. 

Haas: It is a broad church of brands, from those with deep enough pockets to pay for the spots right through to the gorillas finding innovative, and inexpensive means to cut through. In particular, you see the big CPG, alcohol, and endemic (apparel, fantasy, betting, etc.) brands weighing in. Their tangible links to the sports fan, and the viewing experience, make the risk-reward conundrum one they are invariably willing to take.

Given that a cryptocurrency brand had the headline advert in 2022, will the broadcast partners shy away from similar brands after the FTX collapse?

Dignam: There’s always been an element of the big brands being in the Super Bowl ad battle but new players with big budgets come and go. Back at the turn of the century in 1999-2000, it was dot-com brands that blew up and then often blew out – but had big budgets to spend at the time.

If the brands have the budget to buy the airtime, then I don’t see their money being turned down. It’s more a question of whether they have a sustainable brand and business that will be around in 10 or 20 years like the iconic brands that Super Bowl advertising is associated with.

Edwards: My expectation would be that, if a company can afford to buy a Super Bowl advertising slot and isn’t already embroiled in any controversy, then they will advertise. 

Haas: I think the opposite will be true. The scripts for the Super Bowl ads are fuelled by current and future trends. Last year there was no greater source of chatter than cryptocurrencies, and while the industry had its opponents, the overall sentiment was positive and curious.

The Super Bowl is also fertile ground for disruptors. Trace through the archives and you will see a rich history of these types of brands, all the way back to a certain tech start-up introducing the Macintosh computer back in 1984. I think this is part of what excites the fans, and chimes with America’s broader challenger mindset.

Finally, while the FTX collapse is a sad story, and certainly, one to learn from, I do not think it should be cause for sanctified caution. The US culture is one which champions the underdog, and acts of redemption, and certainly is not one that would want networks to limit which brands and industries are ‘safe’ enough to partake. If they did then I would envisage an inventory of brands that is over-engineered, and under-joyful.

What does the future look like for companies aiming to advertise at the Super Bowl?

Dignam: Expensive. There’s no sign of the costs going down and it remains a key moment in the US advertising market – and agencies and clients still seem to love it. There’s no sign of a whistle being blown on the Super Bowl ad contest – despite the growth of digital and direct-to-consumer marketing. This is still a mass audience event and shows the premium for that remains.

Edwards: The traditional brands that advertise at the Super Bowl will continue to do so. There are millions of eyeballs to capture and if you can create something interesting, entertaining, or unusual (or possibly all three) then the rewards and recognition can be extensive. I do think that smaller brands, or more forward-thinking brands, will eschew advertising directly within the game and, instead, attempt to own space around the game, avoiding the exorbitant costs but benefiting from the Super Bowl’s prestige. This effectively started with Newcastle Brown Ale back in the mid-2010s and proved to be a successful approach, one which others have tried, to varying degrees of success, to replicate.

Zambuto: People will continue to judge these spots and pundits will continue to debate. That’s part of the fun. Fans know brands are lining up to impress them – and they want to be entertained. That’s just where the bar has been elevated. If the creative or execution falls flat, it is a missed moment and opportunity for the brand, and the fans and media are going to express their feelings. It’s not unlike a sporting event when fans “cheer” and “boo” to express their sentiment.

You can expect fans to raise the stakes and continue to give brands instant feedback. Many brands continue to appreciate the moment that is in front of them and “get it right”.

Haas: Firstly, knowing that fans are loving being taken behind the scenes – look no further than the success of Netflix’s F1 Drive To Survive series – I think a new digital simulcast would be well received. Mimicking the popular ManningCast show but for the ad world. Creatives, chief marketing officers, featured talent, and the like, would be invited in for short segments to add color to their spot – reacting in real-time with pride for a hit or introspection for a dud. This targeted content would talk to the millions of ad-world acolytes who watch for the battle of the brands rather than the teams.

Secondly, the NFL will continue to be bold and exploratory with its product. Its partnership with [children’s television channel] Nickelodeon showed how unconventional routes must be taken to reach new audiences. This time the kid-focused content accessing the imagination of the family-friendly fan.

Likewise with [sports broadcaster] ESPN’s ManningCasts; the laid-back and light-hearted approach was a welcome antidote for fans who had grown tired of serious and sincere NFL broadcasts. Another innovative broadcast was Thursday Night Football and the NFL’s first-ever streaming-only delivery. These experiments have paid off and will engender confidence to keep trying and testing.

Image: Larry Bridges Jr. on Unsplash