Super Bowl LI: Risky Business

For decades, Americans have huddled around their TVs each year, anticipating the pinnacle of sports and consumerism. Since the dot-com boom, Super Bowl commercials have risen to meet ever more epic standards of comedy, advocacy, and tear-jerking entertainment. That Budweiser puppy with the Clydesdales? Puppy-Monkey-Baby? The cowboy cat herders? The Heinz weiner dogs last year? (Obviously, we love cute animals).


If you watched the big game on Sunday, however, you may have been less impressed by this year’s offerings. Many factors came into play, but a large factor was price and risk. Prices of super bowl ads have risen drastically in the past few years—a 30-second spot went for about $2.5 million in 2010, and this year they were estimated to be $5 million. Perhaps due to this quick increase, demand for the ad time went down this year: sales of ad time lagged 2-3 months behind previous years. The price of creating an ad, purchasing the Super Bowl time slot, and providing digital support have become very costly—and the long and short of it is these ads aren’t driving results. According to research firm Communicus, 80% of Super Bowl ads don’t sell products.



Part of this finding is based on the style of creative that has developed for Super Bowl ads. Communicus CEO Jeri Smith breaks it down:


“The advertisers really dial up the entertainment quotient to pop to the top of the USA Today ranking and such. But we find the brand association with Super Bowl commercials is much lower than you’d get with a typical buy, just because of the way the creative is structured.”


Super Bowl ads are remembered more than regular ads in general (44% people remembering the ads vs. 32% for a regularly aired ad), but the creative intent takes focus away from the brand it’s selling. According to Smith, people who remember seeing a Super Bowl ad remember the brand it promoted 35% of the time, while regularly aired ads provoke brand memory about half the time.


Ads that release a new product or give new information tend to be received well, says Smith, because the ad message is generally clearer. At $5 million per 30-second spot alone, ignoring the additional millions in cost for the creative development, production, and digital support, it’s no wonder advertisers are less interested in taking this gamble—particularly when the political and economic future of our country is experiencing such an uncertain time.


Tim Calkins and Derek Rucker, professors of marketing who co-lead the Kellogg School Super Bowl Ad Review, pin much of this year’s obvious lack of effort on the many questions facing the business world. While the stock market has been strengthening since President Trump’s election, changes in policy could drastically affect the economy in the next few months. Calkins and Rucker predict many companies were unwilling to shell out ever increasing amounts of cash for award-winning creative when they may have to restructure their business models in the near future.


Risk has always been a part of Super Bowl ad buying, considering the scrutiny these ads are put under. As we blogged last week, Heinz elected to skip the game altogether, putting together an elaborate digital campaign instead. The rise of digital has taken the focus off live TV, and has allowed marketers a more affordable way to reach even more people. This efficient and low-risk tactic is getting ever more popular as social and digital efforts are able to reach increasingly targeted audiences.


What do you think of Sunday’s commercials? Any favorites from the bland mélange? Calkins and Rucker predict the next few years will see a return to the amazing Super Bowl ads of yore, but allow for the possibility that this year was more than just a blip. If things keep going the way they have been, we here at Satori Marketing are seriously thankful for the marketing genius of the Puppy Bowl.

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