The magic of Super Bowl ads is gone forever

Nothing left to watch but the sport.
Nothing left to watch but the sport.
Image: AP Photo/Rick Osentoski
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Wow, this year’s Super Bowl ads were sure something, eh? That Snickers Brady Bunch/Danny Trejo spot was hilarious, as was the BMW one where former Today co-hosts Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel riffed on their 1994 ignorance of the Internet. Heck, even Kim Kardashian’s T-Mobile spot was amusing. And the NFL’s riveting domestic violence PSA was downright chilling. It’s hard to believe that another year of Super Bowl ads have come and gone, especially because I remember so little about the game itself…

Oh right, that’s because the Super Bowl is still a couple days away. It just seems like we’ve already seen all of the ads, because so many of the companies that shelled out up to $4.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot have been flooding the internet with those commercials in the days (and sometimes weeks) leading up to the big game. While the rampant marketing might be helping those brands maximize their investment and take full advantage of the intense pre-game media spotlight, it’s also ruined the Super Bowl ads themselves, or at least the annual tradition of discovering them during the game.

For 364 days every year, we’re conditioned to avoid TV ads at all costs: leave the room, change the channel, skip ahead on the DVR… whatever it takes. But every Super Bowl Sunday, all of that is forgotten as many of the telecast’s 100 million-plus US viewers pay more rapt attention to the commercials than the game itself. The ads have long been an essential part of the Super Bowl experience, offering audiences the tantalizing prospect of being dazzled by a new spot that could join Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 Macintosh ad or 1995’s Budweiser Frogs (“Bud. Weis. Er.”), in the pantheon of TV’s all-time greatest commercials.

Not long ago, whenever the Super Bowl cut to a commercial, you wouldn’t dare leave the room. But that time is over, as we now have little incentive to watch the ads live. The Super Bowl ads have been already been posted for Budweiser, BMW, Victoria’s Secret, T-Mobile, Mercedes-Benz USA, Kia Sorento and Terminator Genisys, among several others, with more being added each day. In fact, we’ve already weathered the annual controversy over the Super Bowl Ad That Went Too Far—Go Daddy pulled its Super Bowl puppy mill ad Tuesday after concerns about animal cruelty—and the game hasn’t even happened yet. In the unlikely event you’ve missed an ad or two that airs, you can easily catch it later on: NBC is posting all of them on its Super Bowl Tumblr page immediately after they air.

When we watch Super Bowl ads, we’re hoping to replicate that sense of wonder and awe that comes from discovering a brilliant spot for the first time (like the 1996 Independence Day spot from where we looked on, dumbfounded, as the White House was blown to smithereens). But those unspoiled surprises aren’t increasingly rare; there’s too much money on the line for most companies to resist holding their ads back when everyone else is showing theirs off.

Instead of being astounded during every ad break, we’re simply checking off boxes for all of the commercials we’ve already seen or heard about. Yes, there might be one or two ads that swoop in under the radar and take our collective breath away, like last year’s Seinfeld reunion between Jerry and George, even though that wasn’t technically an ad. But those wondrous moments used to be the norm, not the exception.

This isn’t going to change anytime soon: you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

BMW says it’s a sound business strategy to release Super Bowl spots early online, and Kardashian’s T-Mobile commercial has already been viewed more than 6.7 million times. Those companies will get their money’s worth, the telecast will likely draw the highest ratings in US history (as most Super Bowls do), and the cycle will be repeated next year, with even more ads premiering in advance.

However, some companies are catching on, and realizing they can save millions and get similar amounts of free pre-Super Bowl ad publicity if they advertise in local markets, not nationally. That’s what Vox Media was able to do when its “Super Bowl ad” for The Verge was “leaked” Jan. 20, resulting in huge amounts of media attention, even though it turns out the ad buy had been restricted to one regional market (Helena, Montana) for just $700. Bravo, Vox Media. This local market workaround is likely one reason NBC didn’t sell out its national ads until Wednesday.

The early commercial releases not only robs us of the tradition of viewing them during the game, it dilutes their impact. Let’s go back to that domestic violence PSA. Wouldn’t that spot have been significantly more effective watching it for the first time on a 50” flatscreen versus the a tiny window on a computer or phone? We’ll never know.

So, for the first time, I won’t stay riveted to my television on Sunday when the Super Bowl commercials come on. After all, I’ve seen (almost) all of them already. The ads might still be terrific, but the thrill of watching them is gone.