Even in an age of hundreds of satellite and cable TV channels — not to mention Netflix and programming on our smartphones and tablets — the Super Bowl is the one television event that is guaranteed to reach a majority of the American population. If you are advertising a company or a social cause, the NFL's championship is guaranteed to deliver eyes and buzz.
But just having a commercial seen by millions of Americans is no guarantee of luring customers. In fact, analysis by the advertising research group Communicus suggests Super Bowl ads that will cost at least $4 million for 30 seconds — not to mention additional millions paid for celebrity endorsements and production costs — are not terribly effective. They don't generate a blip in sales.
Even so, advertisers still rush to write big checks to purchase these brief moments of airtime for one reason: to be part of an event that is uniquely American, bringing together every aspect of U.S. culture.
Every year, the broadcast features a military flyby and color guard, a self-consciously pop culture halftime show, and of course, the celebration of capitalism that is Super Bowl advertising, in which the very best creative minds in the industry try to keep us from getting up and heading into the kitchen for more nachos.
The commercials feature talking animals, love stories, action-adventure, comedy (always) and Clydesdales (also always). The commercials are mini narratives that reflect themes currently resonating in our collective psyche. Whether or not it is a flattering reflection is up for debate on an ad-by-ad basis and will be analyzed by the usual suspects.
Some ads arguably contribute to an unflattering reflection (for example, see almost every GoDaddy ad, ever). Still, for better or for worse, to advertise on the Super Bowl is to associate your brand with the American brand.
Another reason these expensive ads sell out months before the event is that for those companies who buy airtime on Super Bowl Sunday, there is a bigger venue and a longer game.
For controversial ads, there is also the potential for free replays on news programs, blogs and social media. In fact, critical successes or abject critical failures both hold the promise of making an ad go viral, with YouTube standing by to replay it as often as necessary. Make a big splash during the Super Bowl, and your ad is guaranteed to have a shelf life that goes far beyond the airtime purchased.
According to the study by Communicus, last year's ads worked best for new product introduction, with Beck Sapphire's “Singing Goldfish” commercial leading the way. And when you think about it, this makes sense. After all, many viewers are already sipping Budweiser products and crunching Doritos while watching homemade Doritos ads during the game.
For new advertisers, the Super Bowl is a chance to run with the big dogs and establish their companies as successful enough to be players in that other game-day matchup, between advertisers and the wallets of football fans across America and around the world.
In the end, companies are willing to pay exorbitant fees to get the American audience to associate their brands with the biggest cultural event of the year. They gain credibility just being seen during the same broadcast as such advertising icons as the Budweiser Clydesdales — which can have more long-term significance than whether we run out the next day to buy the latest gadget, or who won the game.