Over 100 million viewers in nearly half of the households in America will sit down to watch a football game this weekend. In terms of national participation and a dedication to old fashioned gluttony, Super Bowl Sunday is rivaled only by Thanksgiving. The difference of course is that there's no moral obligation to watch the big game with relatives.
What makes the Super Bowl must-see television isn't only the football. America tunes in because the Super Bowl is the one televised event of the year in which the commercials are part of the entertainment.
That being the case, networks are able to charge top dollar for ad space during the game. The average for this year is about $3.5 million per 30-second spot with the exact price depending on the portion of the game during which the ad will run.
"Why on God's earth would you spend $3.5 million for 30 seconds?" asks Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank, in the attached clip.
With so much on the line, companies spending Hollywood movie-sized budgets are on a quest to produce a spot that rises above the others to make an indelible impression not only on the viewing public, but also on their investor base. They're telling a story about the company; be it turnaround plan, a new service, or new product launch. Though often overlooked, consumers and investors can learn a lot about a company based on a Super Bowl ad.
The gold standard in this regard remains Apple's iconic "1984" ad heralding the arrival of the Mac. The spot aired exactly one time --January 22nd, 1984 during the 3rd quarter of the Super Bowl. I have no idea who was playing in that game but I'm not the only one who can tell you precisely where I was when I saw the ad.
It's a question sure to be shouted at Best Buy's (BBY) next shareholders' meeting. The Minnesota-based electronics retailer has had a horrendous run as a company and a stock, capped off by a dismal Christmas season during which the company literally failed to deliver. BBY failed to ship goods purchased on BestBuy.com during Black Friday.
Last year, they put Ozzy Ozbourne and Justin Bieber in a largely incomprehensible spot that remains to this day the one unmitigated flop of Bieber's career. This year, the company is eschewing celebrities and featuring largely unknown inventors, highlighting the little innovations improving your life in incremental ways. Given what's at stake for Best Buy and the number of more pressing issues it needs to address to even exist a year from now, Ablin says he's "not sure how Best Buy wins in a situation like this," (hint: they don't).
Companies that can win are those with enormous existing ad budgets and strong creative teams. The best ads come from pitting these brands against one another and seeing who wins the evening. The main event in this regard this year, as in so many Super Bowls past, will be the war between Pepsi (PEP) and Coke (KO).
Since everyone already knows what Coke and Pepsi products taste like the companies run what Ablin calls "image ads." He says companies have "a lot of latitude, a lot of flexibility to do something off the wall" since, for example, it isn't necessary to explain what a Dorito tastes like.
Ablin says Pepsi has the better track record on this front. This year the non-Coke will go after hormonal males desirous of snacks, cleavage and magical phones. Coke is counter-punching with ads that I won't have to hide from my children, bringing back their anthropomorphic Polar Bears whose only vices seem to be soda and wagering on football.
Volkswagon's ad for the latest edition of their Beetle is called "The Dog Strikes Back," a strained nod towards last year's wildly popular "The Force." Like the Beetle itself, the commercial seems to say "you're not too old to get back into some sort of shape but your most original, best, work is well behind you."
In a slightly more ambitious effort, Honda is going with a Ferris Bueller riff in an ad featuring Matthew Broderick reprising his star-making role. The difference this time is Bueller is driving an undersized family truckster instead of a Ferrari. It's a better spot but ultimately it's hard to remember which car went with which 25-year old movie parody.
Ablin says the real winner isn't going to come from the usual suspects. "It's going to be the one company, the one advertiser where they're just throwing their entire annual advertising budget into that one ad."
In other words, after all the planning, budgeting, strategizing and hype, both the Super Bowl and the game within the game are likely to be decided by one brief, high risk bet with a huge payoff.