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Is the cost of a Super Bowl commercial still worth it for advertisers?

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Perry Knotts/Reuters via USA Today Sports
The big game isn’t getting any bigger.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

When you watch the Super Bowl Feb. 7, you won’t see a Budweiser ad. You won’t see commercials for other Super Bowl mainstays like Coke, Pepsi, or Hyundai either. You’ll still see a ton of ads—many from companies you might not have heard of yet—but the event will have a very different feel from what you’re accustomed to.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated sports TV ratings and squeezed advertising budgets. And yet, CBS, which will broadcast the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is asking for $5.6 million for every 30 seconds of ad time. For companies that can afford it, that hefty price tag has usually been a small price to pay for access to a hundred million captivated viewers.

But, this year, the pandemic—combined with accelerating changes in consumption habits—has some of the world’s top brands reassessing whether or not the Super juice is worth the squeeze. Three of 2020’s top Super Bowl spenders won’t air commercials during this year’s game at all, while AB InBev—Budweiser’s parent company and last year’s top spender—is sidelining its most famous brand. (It will still advertise other products, like Bud Light and Michelob Ultra, as well as play to our collective desire for community in this spot directed by Oscar nominee David Fincher. AB InBev did not respond to a request for comment.)

“You start to ask yourself tough questions,” Christine Grammier, who heads the unit that works with brands and TV advertisers for LiveRamp, told Quartz. LiveRamp uses data to help brands target and measure audiences, including during this year’s Super Bowl. “Is the cost of an ad spot worth it?”

The Super Bowl remains a unique branding opportunity

Until recently, the value of advertising during the Super Bowl was simply assumed. It has long commanded massive TV audiences—and not just of football fans. It regularly draws around 100 million viewers. Nearly half of American households with a TV tuned into the game last year. The Super Bowl’s audience is everyone. And for advertisers in the age of cord-cutting, it’s an increasingly rare chance to say whatever they want in front of consumers who won’t fast-forward through it.

“It’s one of the few remaining live television audiences where people aren’t bypassing the advertising,” said Scott Jones, an associate professor of marketing at Stetson University. “As much as there’s a risk with a bad ad, there’s even greater opportunity if you run the good one. People tune in expecting good advertising.”

But the 30- to 60-second TV ad—the staple of Super Bowl broadcasts—is a dying breed. Viewers are scattered across streaming services and platforms, leaving advertisers scrambling to find them where they are and adjust marketing budgets accordingly. Many brands value being on TV during the Super Bowl, but only as one component of what’s often a holistic strategy that includes online broadcasts of the game on devices other than TVs. (CBS will stream the game on its streaming service, CBS All Access, in addition to airing it on the CBS TV network.)

“It’s still the big game, but it’s becoming a multi-platform big game,” Jay Prasad, the chief strategy officer for TV at LiveRamp, said.

But the cost of advertising is going up, even as viewership stalls

The TV audience for the Super Bowl peaked at about 114 million in 2014, and has steadily declined to roughly 100 million in 2020. To advertisers, that difference of 14 million alone might not be enough to rethink their Super Bowl strategies.

The problem is, the cost of airing ads during the game hasn’t dropped alongside viewership. In fact, it’s done the opposite. The price of 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad time keeps rising, even though the game’s TV audience is widely expected to be smaller than last year’s. With sports ratings down across the board in 2020, the going rate has priced some advertisers out of the event entirely.

“Live sports is still earning back its glamor with advertisers,” Grammier said. The Super Bowl, apparently, is no different.

CBS sold out its ad inventory for this year’s game, but later than usual. Given the uncertain TV ratings, many advertisers don’t want to pony up to reach consumers who aren’t in their target audiences. Broadcasting to an audience of “everyone” has its perks, but it’s also an unnecessary step to take for companies that have a very specific market or are already so well known that a major Super Bowl spot doesn’t do much for their brand-building.

“A lot of companies may have maxed out what they can get with a Super Bowl spot, so you could see new companies take their places,” Prasad said.

Indeed, many of the advertisers you’ll see this year are relatively unknown (compared to the Budweisers and the Cokes of the world, at least), hoping to capitalize on the momentum they built during the pandemic: the freelance platform Fiverr, the e-commerce car retailer Vroom, and the brokerage app Robinhood, of recent GameStop infamy.

And now Covid-19 makes everything even riskier than usual

Marketers still aren’t sure how to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Not long after it began, several brands that aired Covid-themed commercials were criticized for being repetitive and inauthentic. Since then, as consumers have slowly adjusted to their new realities, we’ve seen fewer attempts at addressing the pandemic through marketing.

Still, one wrong move can ruin a company’s reputation and light $5.6 million on fire. No brand wants to be the one that can’t read the room. Think back to Pepsi’s infamous 2017 Black Lives Matter ad, which featured model Kendall Jenner, a white woman, offering a can of Pepsi to a police officer. The ad was so thoroughly mocked that Pepsi had to issue an apology and pull it from the airwaves.

“To be controversial without a really good reason for doing it—I don’t think the world is waiting for that,” said David Srere, co-CEO and chief strategy officer at the global brand experience firm Siegel+Gale. “It’s waiting for humor, and it’s waiting to understand what these companies are doing to help society get through a very difficult time.”

Instead, many of the big brands will use the money they otherwise would have spent on Super Bowl advertising to give to Covid-related causes. Budweiser, for instance, will commit $1 million to a vaccine awareness campaign by the Ad Council, a US nonprofit group that produces public service announcements.

“That’s marketing, too,” said Srere. ”The pandemic makes this tougher to advertise in, but there are safe strategies, even in this environment.”

Donating to a good cause (and making sure the world knows it) is one such strategy. Using ad time to highlight initiatives brands have already done is another. Srere suggests some companies advertising during the Super Bowl should point to substantive contributions, rather than offer some vague promise of hope.

“I don’t think the adage ‘actions speak louder than words’ has ever been truer,” he said. “Doing that mitigates any risk for those companies if they decide to address serious issues.”

The future of the Super Bowl ad

This year’s Super Bowl ads could serve as something of a trial run for future broadcasts. If Coke or Pepsi find that they’re able to meet their goals without a big game spot, we very well may not see them advertise during the game again. If Fiverr sees a boost in buzz following the game, expect to see more startups saving up $5 million or more to do the same thing in 2022 and beyond.

But the shift to streaming consumption is permanent, and with digital advertising measurement tools improving (and networks finally accepting them), the importance of the Super Bowl within a company’s marketing budget could wane. Brands will do less brand-building—and more targeted, product ads.

“Using the Super Bowl as a platform to launch a product is something you’ll see more of,” Grammier said. “You’ll see less of the traditional Budweiser or Pepsi branding spot.”

The verdict is: Yes, in a non-pandemic year, Super Bowl ads probably still have enough value for brands to continue paying the cost of them. The game’s audience is that big, and that rare. The pandemic, however, has made many big-name advertisers re-evaluate what’s important to them. And TV commercials—even during the Super Bowl—just aren’t what they used to be.

“The Super Bowl is another brick in the wall,” Srere said. “It’s a big brick, but a brand doesn’t get made just by running one ad in the Super Bowl.”

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