Happy Groundhog Day! Not to be confused with the other Groundhog Day coming this Superbowl Sunday. No, I’m not talking about the New England Patriots' uncanny ability to pull out the win no matter the odds. I’m referring to the annual (and typically predictable) advertising derby which many speculate is half the reason why an audience of over 100 million are expected to tune in.
With an average 30 second TV spot costing in excess of an astonishing $5 million according Sports Illustrated, the stakes have never been higher for marketers looking to cash in on the biggest TV viewing audience of the year. To put that number into perspective, Superbowl ads surpassed the $1 million mark in 1995, hurdled $2 million five years later, rose to $3 million in 2010, and now here we are north of $5 M a scant eight years later. This rapid inflation is a testament to just how rare of an opportunity this event gives advertisers to reach a massive audience in one place and time, amid a marketplace rife with fragmentation.
At that price tag, that means communication experts are paying around $166,666 per second in an effort to grab attention over the din of chatter, chip crunching, and beer swigging that will be competing with their messages. Here are a few observations examining the tactics that are being employed, with some previews of this year’s spots courtesy of YouTube.
1. Laughter Is the Best Medicine: Year after year, commercials that feature humor seem to be just the tonic. They’re easy for a broad audience to digest, typically non-controversial, and can use sight to arrest attention, when sound is being obliterated by competing armchair quarterbacks. Last year’s winner of USA Today’s Annual Super Bowl Ad Meter was Kia’s “Hero’s Journey” which featured comic actress Melissa McCarthy in a series of mishaps trying to save the planet. Febreze continues the outrageous tradition this year with a somewhat bizarre, edgy, and funny spot entitled “The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink.”
2. Celebrity Crush: Speaking of celebrities a la McCarthy, they are employed frequently as an attention grabber and an audit of this year’s preview spots are proof positive that the tactic remains in vogue. Chris Pratt, Rebel Wilson, Anthony Hopkins, Bill Hader, Danny DeVito, and Tiffany Haddish are just a few of the familiar faces that will be hawking products. This gambit is most effective when the celebrity’s usual persona is juxtaposed against an unfamiliar or sidesplitting scenario, a device being employed by Doritos & Mountain Dew in a spot where Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman lip synch to hip hop from the likes of Busta Rhymes and Missy Eliott.
3. Sweet Emotion: No Superbowl ad sweepstakes would be complete without at least one adorable puppy, a spotlight on everyday heroism, or the American flag flapping in the wind. This year the blue ribbon may very well be taken by a moving and poignant spot from Superbowl advertising masters Budweiser entitled, “Stand by You.” It effectively reminds us of the brutal and seemingly relentless natural disasters our country has faced over the past year, and the response of average Americans to try and ameliorate the pain.
4. Will Borrowed Interest Pay Dividends? The borrowed interest device – whereby an advertiser uses something completely unrelated to the product or service being ballyhooed – is a device that insurance advertiser GEICO are the kings of. But not every marketer has a billion-dollar budget to fling willy-nilly ideas against the wall. In past years, when such gimmicks have gotten too far afield, audiences remember the gag, but often times cannot remember what was being advertised (remember 2000’s “Cat Herders” from Electronic Data Systems)? One example you’ll spot this year: Keanu Reeves surfing atop a motorcycle across the desert in a commercial for Squarespace. I have no flipping idea what this eye candy has to do with building a website.
5. Politics Abound or Out-of-Bounds? Last year, 84 Lumber took a big risk running a spot entitled “The Journey Begins” which followed mother and daughter immigrants who travel a great distance and endure many hardships to reach America. The climax revealed a gate built into Trump’s wall by workers from the sponsoring company. The spot, which was a direct challenge to the President’s policy, was deemed too controversial by Fox, so the conclusion of the story had to be seen via an online link. (You can view it in its entirety here). Interestingly, a military veteran group’s print ad that espouses standing for the National Anthem was rejected by the NFL for the game’s souvenir program, though a commercial for PETA that will likely have hamburger and hotdog lovers pausing mid-chew will be part of Sunday’s broadcast.
With so much divisiveness in the country, it will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. According to a CBS poll conducted just after the President’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening, 75% of Americans approved of the message. Obviously, advertisers already had their commercials in the can before this feel good moment (for a majority) occurred. Will we laugh, cry, or get angry at the messages we see? One thing’s for sure: there will be winners and losers -- both on and off the field.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with a Concentration in Marketing and Sales from Marylhurst University.