The Superbowl is big news in the good old US of A. So big that it’s often the most watched television event in America in the course of a given year. In fact, the 2011 Superbowl was the most watched piece of TV in American history. It’s also very heavily watched globally, which is lovely for the players and the NFL but is likely of less relevance to the American advertisers who see the bowl as the annual holy grail of advertising. 

The Superbowl: advertising's most attractive lure.

The Superbowl: advertising's most attractive lure.

Once a year, the big brands know that they’ve got a massive captive audience covering a wide variety of demographics, so they throw the whole nine yards at making as much of an impact as possible. Of course the networks exploit this phenomenon as hard as they can because they effectively hold all the cards. If advertisers want to reach that captive audience, well then they’re going to have to open their wallets big time because Superbowl ads do not come cheap. Recent Superbowls have some freaky average costs per ad – try US$4 million for size. This obviously means that only the biggest brands can get in on the action, and once you commit to that kind of spend, you really need to do it right.

Which brings us to the second complication of advertising during the Superbowl besides the cost – audience expectation. Some would say that the ads are as important to much of the audience as the game is. This is true to a degree – as big as the game is, only two teams are playing, which means that only a small portion of the viewers (the supporters) will have a deep seated loyalty and the associated passion behind them. Many of the rest are watching simply because it’s the Superbowl in the same way that Kiwis would still watch a Rugby World Cup final between South Africa and Australia even if the All Blacks had been knocked out in the quarter finals. But there’s also a large segment of the audience who are just watching the ads, so much so that there’s a USA Today live poll that tracks the response to the ads in real time.

The problem with all this excitement and all the hype around the advertising is that a run of the mill ad is going to be somewhat disregarded, falling far behind the really eye catching ads in the minds of the viewers, soon to be forgotten.

So there’s an element of needing to absolutely pull out all the stops, which again pushes up the cost. These ads are also in ‘jump the shark’ territory – once you’ve created that amazing, big-budget ad that wows the viewers, what do you do next year? Anything less impressive will lead to disappointment and mutterings of “That GM ad was rubbish compared to the one from last year, but wow, did you see the Nissan ad?”

If your mega-ad does get totally trumped by the opposition, or even by an incredibly entertaining ad from a brand in a totally different industry segment, then was there any point in spending that money? Agency executives will argue that of course the ad had merit and reached people, even if it wasn’t particularly popular, and to an extent, they’re obviously right but both the agency folk and the clients would be cringing if their ad wasn’t well received. This is the gladiatorial arena of interruption marketing and there’ll be scant mercy for the losers when the numbers are tallied.

The question then has to be whether it’s worth jumping through these hoops once a year? Well regardless of what you do, it’s going to be something of a gamble but if you’ve got the money, the right product and the creative geniuses on hand to really give it your best shot, then it’s worth taking a punt because how often do you have the chance to blow away that many people across so many age ranges and demographics. Winners win big, losers get a caning but that’s the way of the business world.

On the other hand, what if you’re not one of the big gorillas with the bottomless wallets? How on earth do you reach your key audience (and all the hangers on and influencers too) without spending the earth? It’s a valid question especially for us in little old New Zealand, where the closest parallel would be the aforementioned Rugby World Cup final. Only a few brands get to be involved with that, so what about the rest?

Well the answer is pretty simple, as it’s always been. To get results that are better than they were last year and the year before, you need to do something different than you did in the past. While the competition is treading the same turf, you should be exploring different ways to engage your customers instead of just yelling at them. Everyone will tell you they’re already doing something vastly different but they’re actually all doing the same damn thing, social, experiential, outdoor, and they’re still much of a muchness. Being innovative doesn’t need to cost a load of money but it can make your company a whole heap of cash if it’s done right. What choice do you have if you don’t have millions in the marketing budget?