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The past, present and future of the Super Bowl’s multi-million dollar ads

By Rachel Douglass

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Business |Interview

Victoria's Secret Super Bowl XLIX ad. Credits: Victoria's Secret.

The final line up for the Super Bowl LVIII has been decided. The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers are preparing to face off. For some, this is a cause for celebration – for fans of both the teams and for Taylor Swift, the billionaire Chiefs guest that has become a regular fixture at recent games. For others, while we patiently await the always highly anticipated halftime show – this year starring Usher – our attention will also be drawn to the equally infamous ad slots that dominate each quarter.

From the outside looking in, the cultural phenomena of Super Bowl ads can be hard to grasp. The monumental costs of simply booking one of the highly-sought after spaces – which now sit at around seven million dollars per 30-seconds – can be mind-boggling. Yet, when looking at the finer details of the advertorial concept, it becomes clear how these commercial breaks have consistently remained relevant, evading time and continuing to influence in the current day.

Ad evolutions: Pivotal moments in the Super Bowl lifespan

The Super Bowl’s status can of course largely be credited to the distinction of the National Football League (NFL), the professional American football organisation comprising 32 teams, while the occasion itself is now one of the most widely accredited sports events in the world. “Others often refer to themselves as the ‘Super Bowl of motor racing’ or the ‘Super Bowl of cricket’. The NFL doesn’t need to be the Super Bowl of anything,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, the president, brands and properties at Wasserman, a multi-sector marketing consultancy. “That is the scale and magnitude of what the NFL does. The Super Bowl invariably aggregates more eyeballs than any other singular event in the world. That has inherent value.”

Alicia Silverstone in Rakuten's 2023 Super Bowl ad, 'Not So Clueless' Credits: Rakuten.
How many people watch the Super Bowl?

According to data from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and Prosper Insights and Analytics, this year could mark a record year for viewership, with 200,5 million US adults expected to tune in for the big game. A significant feat when looking back to the first Super Bowl of 1967, which drew in 51 million people. Other data collected by Advocado found that around 42 percent of this viewership tune in to specifically enjoy the advertisements, with 50 percent going on to ultimately purchase a product or service based on the commercials.

When it comes to the NFL, Wasserman’s job, and therefore Lindsey’s job, revolves around the representation of brands and properties that invest in sports, helping to measure relevance, deals and effectiveness when it comes to partnerships in this sector. This also includes NFL League sponsors, which are both national and international depending on where the games are being played – the NFL has increasingly taken to European countries to host games for its broadening global audience.

“The NFL doesn’t need to be the Super Bowl of anything. That is the scale and magnitude of what the NFL does.”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president, brands and properties

While the Super Bowl itself has always held a sense of esteem since its inception, it can be harder to pinpoint when brands and their respective commercials also began to hold a similar standing. If anything, it was the Super Bowl’s own status that really drove home the impact of such commercials, leading to bigger and bigger productions as the years went by. Lindsey elaborated: “Brands began to realise the status of the Super Bowl and if the consumers were going to make this event transcendent, then the brands were going to make the commercials within it worthy of that.”

There have been notable commercials, however, that are often credited with paving the way for the annual fixture, and are therefore considered milestones in advertising history. Apple’s ‘1984’ commercial, for example, is frequently deemed to be a cultural phenomenon of its own, marking the first time the tech company’s Macintosh had been introduced to the public. Another storyline that has been more long-running is that of the Pepsi-Coke rivalry, which has seen the two soft drink manufacturers regularly come head-to-head in attempts to capture the Super Bowl audience. The war came to a climax, however, when Pepsi became the main sponsor of the Super Bowl over 10 years ago – a deal that later ended in 2023.

Pepsi’s 2019 Super Bowl commercial ‘Okurrr’, featuring Cardi B

How much do the ad spaces cost?

The cost of these commercial spaces has risen significantly over the years. Multiple sources have stated that this year in particular, the price to secure a 30-second slot has increased to over seven million dollars. This is a notable step up from figures in 2015, when it was reported that the spaces were going for just 4.25 million dollars. The market is particularly lucrative for the network provider Fox Corp., which said it had secured around 400 million dollars in gross advertising revenue for Super Bowl LVII in 2023 – a record for the firm.

Far-reaching cultural and commercial impact

In earlier years, ads were also more closely targeted towards the interests of the assumed Super Bowl viewer – men – hence the regularity of beer, car and tech companies among the line up. Yet, as the years have gone by, the diversity in categories has broadened, seeing the increased inclusion of fashion and beauty brands among the final selection. This intertwining of fashion has also extended into the culture of the NFL as a whole, seeing some of its biggest stars become trend-setting influencers off-pitch – with many showing off their attire in pregame fits dedicatedly captured by their team’s respective social media managers. This is without even mentioning the now yearly collaborations between the NFL and a slew of brands – many of which are typically far removed from the sportswear category.

Kristin Juszczyk, wife of Kyle Juszczyk #44 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on before the NFC Divisional Playoffs between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on January 20, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. Credits: LACHLAN CUNNINGHAMGETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICAGetty Images via AFP
Read: Wife of 49ers fullback Kristin Juszczyk signs NFL deal

For Lindsey, such shifts are evidence of the way sports transcends the playing field. “It used to be that sports was what we would call the field of the endemics,” she explained. “The Oakley sunglasses began to be endemic because everyone was wearing them, so you started seeing the definition of endemic expand. That is a perfect metaphor for the power of sport. Sport is pervasive in our culture, it’s the one thing that is not disintermediated. It stays on television, and no one fast-forwards through commercials. Everybody shows up to watch in the moment. You’re paying attention to the cultural impact on the field, with the players in society – that is a testament to their pervasiveness. That matters not only to everyone watching, but also specifically to the fashion industry, because it's culturally impactful.”

“Sport is pervasive in our culture, it’s the one thing that is not disintermediated.”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president, brands and properties

Oakley’s 2023 commercial starring KC Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes

As such, there has also been shifts among viewership – and the overarching perspective of the viewership – and therefore in the way many brands approach their commercial concepts. According to Lindsey, and an array of surveys and reports carried out over the years, even those who are not initially invested in American football avidly show up on the day, therefore aggregating the attention of individuals that are hard to reach through other programming.

There has also been the onboarding of a largely untapped female fanbase, a one for which everything from ads to even merchandise had at once remained largely withdrawn until just several years ago. Now, brands like Elf Cosmetics, which will be exhibiting its second Super Bowl commercial this year, are amplifying and speaking to this once overlooked group with culturally-relevant ads that recognise these fans for who they are.

“It used to be that people would just do what we call ‘pink it and shrink it’.”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president, brands and properties

How long are Super Bowl ads?

There are approximately 50 minutes of ad space to fill throughout the entirety of the Super Bowl, with most commercials having an average duration of 30 seconds. Many companies have been known to exceed this, stretching their presence to be as long as 120 seconds.

“The NFL is one of the most diverse audiences. Counting both male and female, it is almost 50/50. The avidity and the passion is equal,” Lindsey noted. “Beauty brands were some of the first brands who knew how to talk to the female fan. It used to be that people would just do what we call ‘pink it and shrink it’. They would take every product that they made and had a football logo on it, make it smaller, turn it pink and try to sell it to women. That’s very disingenuous of the true female football fan. We want products that understand and respect our unique fandom.”

This only intensifies for Gen Z, an audience that Wasserman has paid close attention to through its dedicated Next Gen marketing unit. And through their women-focused practice, The Collective, the agency studied the female fan in order to create more opportunities for visibility. On the company’s findings, Lindsey said: “The industry has recognised women and the power of female fandom slowly. Every generation has accepted that, but Gen Z demands more recognition and appreciation. They say: ‘You better talk to me and for me, and if you do not I will punish you’. The beauty brands are paying attention because they know how to talk to that fan and the fan is responding because they're being talked to genuinely.”

Jennifer Coolidge in Elf's 2023 Super Bowl commercial. Credits: Elf Cosmetics.

What must brands consider when booking a slot?

Naturally, and with this in mind, snapping up a Super Bowl ad space is not a marketing move that should be taken lightly. While the seven million dollar price tag is one thing, standing out among the similarly flashy campaigns that require similarly massive budgets is another. On this, Lindsey said: “There is no middle ground in Super Bowl advertising. You either get it or you don't. It's a big risk, big reward. You have to be prepared for that. The second thing is it's a lot of noise. For any brand in any marketing campaign, any time of year, you've got to be able to break through the noise. You've got to do something that is interesting and catchy and attention grabbing but you can also go too far. I always tell brands in any campaign: ‘Be true to yourself’.”

It is this motto that continues to hold true when it comes down to the actual nitty gritty of formulating an ad, a process that begins well before the Super Bowl in the year prior. For Wasserman, Lindsey and brands working with the agency, discussions always come back to the foundations: Who is your audience? What do they believe about you? What do you want them to do? How do you inspire that action? “Recognising that the Super Bowl as an ecosystem changes the balance that you’re dealing with. You’re going to have more lights on you, so it’s not the same as building a normal campaign. You build it on steroids,” commented Lindsey.

BTS of Snoop Dogg in Skechers 2023 Super Bowl ad. Credits: Skechers.
From when can the commercials be seen?

Super Bowl ad spaces kick off in each quarter of the game, which this year is scheduled to take place February 11, 6:30pm ET. While this may be the official schedule, many brands have now taken to either pre-releasing, teasing or extending their commercials to keep the conversation flowing.

And like anything else in the world of culture, these ad spots are also susceptible to ever-changing trends, meaning that brands also need to keep their finger on the pulse about the current precedence of such slots. While one year everyone may hire celebrities, another may be dedicated to television tributes or feeding into a certain nostalgia relevant with the zeitgeist. “At the end of the day, you have to remember your point,” Lindsey noted. “Occasionally, you can put so much spectacle around it that you disintermediate your own message. People are looking for brand equity and rub off. In reality, what you get may overwhelm you. Quiet all the noise. Know who you are and who you need to reach.”

“It’s not the same as building a normal campaign. You build it on steroids.”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president, brands and properties

Following the airing of the ads, it is up to not only the audience but the ever-prevalent Super Bowl ad monitors to bestow judgement on the selection at hand and decide which garnered the most attention. Yet, as noted by Lindsey, it often isn't these productions that end up driving the most sales. “These ads are actually a little transcendent,” she explained. “Some of them trip into entertainment value, but don’t motivate you to make a purchase. At the end of the day, no one spends in sports for fun, they spend to make a connection with their customer because that relationship is what inspires action that will ultimately lead to the purchase of more product.”

An offset of this mindset is the elongation of campaigns that have seen the development of 360 programming around what was initially just a one minute slot. This trend, largely driven by the rise of social media, has led to a renewed structure, now incorporating pre-show leaks, pre-programming, post-programming and outtakes, contributing to a campaign that lives beyond the initial presence. Speaking to this, Lindsey said: “Part of that is probably strategic – rewarding customers for loyalty and attention. Part of it is pragmatic. If you’re going to spend seven and a half million dollars on 60 seconds, immortalising its value across more time is only smart.”

UberEats’ preview of its 2024 Super Bowl commercial starring David and Victoria Beckham

A great example of building up excitement this year comes in the form of an UberEats ad, which has leaned heavily on a recent cultural moment conceived by David and Victoria Beckham. A preview of the ad see the famous couple recreate a viral moment from David’s newly released Netflix documentary, aptly titled ‘Beckham’, however this time Victoria mistakenly states that the clip is to air during the “Super Hockey Ball” and will star “Jessica Anniston”. While only released a week ago, the Instagram video has already amassed over one million views and has received global media attention ahead of when the actual ad is to be unveiled.

The future of the Game Day ad

Joining UberEats and Elf Cosmetics this year are a further 38 brands and 15 movie trailers, with Etsy expected to drop a story centred around artificial intelligence (AI) and Dove preparing to unveil a new collaboration with Nike among those. It is this latter commercial that will really play into another trend Lindsey highlighted as a one set to define the future of Super Bowl ads – that of recognising diversity in both the casting and who they are targeting. The concept of Dove’s commercial has already become evident in its recent collaboration with Kylie Kelce, the wife of NFL star Jason Kelce, who has partnered with the brand on the #KeepHerConfident campaign, dedicated to raising the confidence of young girls in sports, a message that will continue into the Super Bowl.

Kylie Kelce in Dove's #KeepHerConfident campaign. Credits: Dove.
How many ad spaces are there?

The number of ads varies each year, but typically averages at 70. It must be noted that this amount has been decreasing in recent years. Last year there were just 57. This was down from 64 in 2021, 70 in 2020 and 91 in 2019.

Including women in the conversation around sports is something that Lindsey sees only growing stronger in the near future. “You’re seeing a proper reflection of women fans and trends that speak to how younger fans like to consume, which is not always linear,” Lindsey noted, adding that such a mindset has also been reflected in a shift from spectacles that once dominated to more heartwarming stories. She continued: “We needed that as a society. The one thing that never wavers though is the poignancy and authenticness of it. The brands who know who they are and know who their consumer is don't feel the need to overreact. It's about the poignancy and the authenticity of the message.”

“The one thing that never wavers is the poignancy and authenticness of [Super Bowl ads].”

Elizabeth Lindsey, Wasserman president, brands and properties

What will remain true, however, in the eyes of Lindsey, is the importance surrounding advertising in sports as a whole, something that extends beyond just the Super Bowl. Lindsey concluded: “In the past, people thought they could throw their entire ad budget at the Super Bowl and tap out for the year. Now, they are realising that the drumbeat of constant conversation needs to happen. Having that around sports is powerful, because it’s not just the Super Bowl that captures attention of consumers these days. The only thing that matters anymore is live, and what matters live is sport. People are looking at the Super Bowl as a part of that, not the whole of that, and that's really smart.”

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