With two weeks of hype about to give way to actual football action, Madison Avenue already knows the score. Regardless of whether the New England Patriots or Philadelphia Eagles prevail on the field Sunday, advertisers have set another spending record in Super Bowl LII, showing that they remain committed to TV’s biggest campfire.
NBC predicts it will collect about $500 million from Sunday alone, not only from the big game but also an original episode of top-rated drama This Is Us. That would be a record haul for any media company on a single day, the network says.
According to Kantar, the average rate for a 30-second spot has increased by 87% over the past decade and by more than five times since 1995, breaking the $5 million barrier for 30 seconds this year. And all of that investment — which doesn’t include the millions more per spot brands pour into production costs — despite a 20% increase since 2008 in the number of spots vying for viewers’ attention.
In addition to the clutter, Super Bowl ratings since 2011 haven’t broken out of a pretty narrow range — but it’s a pretty astronomical range. Each of the past six games has drawn between 108 million and 114 million total viewers. Last year’s Oscars show on ABC, the largest non-football broadcast of 2017, attracted about 34 million.
Any day of 100 million-plus viewers is party time for a network, but Sunday’s game caps a season of turbulence for the NFL, when anthem protests, a glut of games and rising concern about head trauma were among factors sending overall ratings down. The rancor over player protests arising from anger over police shootings across the country grew so intense that President Donald Trump entered the fray, urging fans via Twitter to boycott games as long as players kept kneeling. Once believed to be untouchable, NFL telecasts in the aggregate have declined 17% over the past two seasons.
Dan Lovinger, EVP of ad sales for NBC Sports Group, says no advertisers have indicated they are shying away from this year’s game because of the recent ratings slippage and scandals that have blemished the NFL shield. “The game almost transcends the season,” Lovinger told reporters on a recent conference call. “It’s the only environment where viewers admit they look forward as much to the commercials as the content itself.”
While Lovinger was expressing a bullish view, he was also acknowledging the reality for any broadcast network. Audiences have been tuning out commercials in massive numbers in recent years, whether by gravitating to SVOD services like Netflix or availing themselves of ad-skipping technology. Major cable programmers like Turner and Viacom as well as some individual programs like NBC’s Saturday Night Live have acknowledged the threat, shifting to reduced ad loads.
Football games themselves have looked a little different this season, as networks have sought to retain viewers by using picture-in-picture ads that enable fans to follow the action even during commercial time outs. And increasingly popular 6-second units started to enter the scene last fall, with football as a key proving ground. Despite this trend toward brevity, Lovinger says many Super Bowl advertisers this year have gone the other way. “What we are seeing is more interest in long-form than in short-form,” he said. “You will see more longer-form – longer than 30 seconds – in this game than you probably have in any other Super Bowl. It just comes down to advertisers looking at this as the ultimate platform to tell a story.”
While cars and beverages will continue to dominate as categories, Hollywood studios also use the game as the ultimate summer tentpole launchpad. The top-spending studio parent companies between 1995 and 2007 have been Comcast, Disney and Viacom, in that order, Kantar says — and all three rank among the top 10 advertisers overall. (Comcast is No. 6, just behind Coca-Cola.) This year, streaming will also be a big theme, with Amazon, Hulu and Netflix all hawking new series.
The message is already getting across. According to data firm 4C Insights, which tracks activity on more than two billion social media accounts, Hulu got 454,488 engagements in January, with Universal Pictures (stumping for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) at 230,376 and Toyota at 216,841.
Any spots in the game, though they were planned before the #MeToo movement took off, now need to walk a more delicate tightrope. The Super Bowl historically has been a venue for bikini babes and frat-boy humor, but given the climate, brands are likely to be exercising a bit more caution. The broadcast certainly won’t be as solemn and monochromatic as the Golden Globes, but just don’t expect another GoDaddy situation this year. Comedy and nostalgia remain go-to options. Some of the more notable ads already being teased or posted in full online attest to that, include a Doritos-Mountain Dew rap battle with Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman; a Pepsi walk down memory lane with Cindy Crawford; and founder-CEO Jeff Bezos appearing in his first Amazon spot, along with Rebel Wilson, Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.
If the recent social media firestorms such as last Sunday’s over the Grammy Awards are any indication, advertisers need to keep their heads on a swivel.
“Brands can be supportive to their customers without alienating others,” Sandy Rubinstein, CEO of DXagency, told Deadline. “For example, the female movement can be supported in a positive way like Audi did last year by embracing and celebrating women’s achievements. Focus on the positive and make your customers feel you are a positive brand who showcases possibilities rather than negative.”
Given the pressure on the live linear TV window, an increasing number of advertisers see the game as merely the first stage of a long-term branding effort. Online and social platforms are able to keep ads circulating for several years. Some even steer clear of the high-priced Sunday evening real estate. The instant-classic Old Spice ad “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” premiered in February 2010, but not on the Super Bowl broadcast itself. It went online a few days before the game and debuted on TV premiere the following week. It went on to rack up 60 million online views, the vast majority of that on YouTube, but over a remarkably elongated seven-year time span.
“Advertisers need to think about the next chapter to the story and how they engage customers online post-show,” Rubinstein says. “More and more advertisers are telling consumers to continue the journey with the brand online where they continue to build the consumer-brand relationship.”