The story of the NFL this season was all about television ratings. Viewership fell throughout the regular season, even after the election, and ended down some 8% on average.
That drop had an impact on advertiser spending in the NFL Playoffs in January, according to new data from MediaRadar. Of last year’s top 10 biggest playoff advertisers, eight lowered their ad spend for this year; four of them (Nissan, Fiat Chrysler, Best Buy and Apple) dropped out of the top 10 entirely. Only GM and Ford raised their spend.
So you might think the trend would apply to Super Bowl advertising too. You might think that after a down ratings year—and after last year’s Super Bowl viewership of 111 million was down from the 114 million who watched in 2015—the cost for brands to get in might soften.
Nope. The cost of a 30-second Super Bowl ad has risen every year since 1970 ($78,000) except for in 2007 and 2010. Last year it was $4.8 million for a spot. This year, it’s at $5 million. And experts say that for the brands that buy, the final price tag is much higher than that—most will spend another couple million dollars to market and promote their ad ahead of time and create various social and digital tie-ins.
So, is there any ceiling on Super Bowl ads? Is 30 seconds of airtime during the big game really as valuable as ever?
Brands insist it is. “It’s the last bastion of programming that people feel is must-see, in the moment, live,” says Elizabeth Lindsey, a partner at Wasserman, who strategizes with many of the brands that are partners of the NFL. “I would argue the Super Bowl is a cultural experience far more than it is an individual game. It’s a gathering. And regardless of how you watch, at the end of the day it’s social.” Advertisers, naturally, want to harness that social buzz.
The ‘360’ ad strategy and creating a moment
While many of the same brands are back for this year, they are very clearly trying to create big, buzzy moments by doing something different.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, a perennial buyer of multiple ad slots, is running a Budweiser ad that has already created conversation online, as it appears to touch on immigration.
In the 60-second ad, an immigrant to America rides on an overcrowded ship, slogs through mud, and gets insults hurled at him by locals. At the end, in St. Louis, he makes a friend in a bar, Eberhard Anheuser, and it’s revealed that the protagonist is Adolphus Busch. Given the political storm of President Trump’s executive order, the ad is sure to court controversy.
Snickers, a Mars brand, is touting the first Super Bowl “live ad” since 1981. That means what it sounds like: the ad, featuring the “Star Wars” and “Girls” actor Adam Driver, will be broadcast from a live feed, in the first ad break of the third quarter. (Hyundai will also shoot a live, 60-second ad during the game, but air it after the game ends.)
Snickers’ stunt has the potential to create conversation and pull off the kind of “moment” every brand dreams of, but it also carries great risk, if something goes wrong or a person utters something inappropriate.
To ensure the ad makes a splash, Snickers is spending hundreds of thousands to post highlights from the 36-hour live feed to Facebook, the company told the New York Times. It’s all run of the road now for Super Bowl advertisers: you can no longer simply buy the ad slot, you also must create a 360-degree assault on consumers.
“It’s no longer an either/or proposition: ‘I’ll either do an ad, or I’ll do something digital or social,’” Lindsey says. “If you’re going to run an ad, you’d better have the digital companions to it, the extra behind-the-scenes footage. And are you creating a mini-360 marketing plan between all of those elements?”
As PepsiCo CMO Seth Kaufman says, any advertiser in the Super Bowl must now “create a media-to-shelf experience.” That extends from television to social media and store displays.
And one trend from the past two years may be reversing: advertisers waited longer this year overall to release their ads ahead of time. It was a “slower start than usual,” says iSpot.tv, which tracks Super Bowl ads, and as a result, YouTube views of Super Bowl ads ahead of the game are “back to levels more aligned with 2014 when brands tended to wait until later in the week to release creatives, if at all.”
Taking a different approach
Not all big consumer brands that bought Super Bowl ads regularly in the past are doing it again this year. Frito-Lay, for example, ran a Doritos ad in the past 10 Super Bowls, but won’t have one this time. Instead, it produced three digital spots starring NFL players, and created a drunk-driving awareness program in partnership with Uber and MADD that involves chip bags with alcohol sensors on them. And Frito-Lay’s parent company PepsiCo isn’t running any in-game ad for the Pepsi brand (though Pepsi is the halftime show sponsor), instead using its 30 seconds to promote LIFEWTR.
But PepsiCo and Frito-Lay insist this isn’t about ratings, or about thinking the Super Bowl is any less glamorous than before. The game, says Frito-Lay CMO Jennifer Saenz, is “still a cultural phenomenon, and I don’t see that changing.”
Aflac, meanwhile, has never run a Super Bowl ad before, but this year it has one—but it’s not an in-game ad, which means it didn’t run the company $5 million. Instead, the ad runs just after country star Luke Bryan sings the national anthem, and just before kickoff. Aflac was set to run the ad during The Grammys on Feb. 12, until the Super Bowl opportunity came knocking; Aflac “made adjustments” to jump on the chance in just 24 hours.
“We think this is a really good value for us,” says Aflac CMO Gail Galuppo. “We are very conscious about return on investment, so we select ad-placement very carefully. When this opportunity presented itself, it was one that we couldn’t pass up.”
Viewership at the moment Aflac’s ad runs will certainly not be as high as whatever the peak during the game will be, but it might be pretty close. “With Luke Bryan performing, we think people will sit down with their snacks, and be ready, and they’ll be watching,” says Galuppo.
Insurance company Aflac is mostly hoping to reach millennials with its high-profile spot. “They know the Aflac duck and they know the brand nine out of 10 times,” Galuppo says, “but they don’t necessarily understand what we sell and how it impacts them. So we want to get that across.”
Ratings were down, but not ‘bad’
As for that ratings dip, Lindsey of Wasserman rejects the idea that the league had a bad year. “Did the ratings decline from where they used to be? Sure,” she says. “But you can’t look at these things in isolation, you have to look at it comparatively. Even if the NFL season took a 10% hit, it is still 20% or 30% higher than everything else.”
Lindsey says she hasn’t heard any of her brand clients expressing doubt about the Super Bowl this year, despite the regular-season ratings. “I think it’s something people have at top of mind, but I have yet to see anybody take a step over that line and say that it’s not worth it. It would take a long way for this mighty behemoth to fall to say now it’s not worth it.”
The Super Bowl, Lindsey says, remains unchallenged in its reign as the biggest live television event of the year. It attracts the casual viewers who didn’t watch football during the regular season—and not just the casual, it even recruits the clueless. She uses the anecdote of her own parents: “My mother probably does not know the Atlanta Falcons are a football team, and not a basketball team. But she watches the Super Bowl.”
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.