Time is money.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that in 1748. And he’s on the money nowadays.
Super Bowl ads offer a handy way to quantify Franklin’s proverb: This year they cost somewhere in a neighborhood north of $5 million for 30 seconds. That’s a lot of Benjamins for not a lot of time.
Kantar Media, which tracks such things, says the cost of Super Bowl ads doubled in a decade. Year after year, Super Bowls are the most-watched programming in America. And the ads themselves are part of the show — the pinnacle of American advertising.
But will it always be so?
All of that is tied to the popularity of the National Football League. It is the behemoth of American professional sports leagues, but greatness today doesn’t guarantee greatness forever. Rome once ruled the world. Cleveland once ruled the NFL.
Ratings for NFL games dropped 8% this season. The specter of concussions and brain injury looms over the sport. As time goes on, and more is learned, perhaps more mothers will forbid their sons from playing — could watching football someday be the social equivalent of smoking around children?
“There are some dark clouds on the NFL’s horizon,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “The future of the primacy of Super Bowl ads in our consciousness is dependent on the future of the Super Bowl’s primacy in our consciousness, which is dependent on the continued power of the NFL.
“But as of right now, even with a ratings drop, football is still the most important regularly scheduled programming type in the country.”
Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says companies that advertise on the Super Bowl can easily be coughing up double the $5 million price tag – the production costs for the commercials are high and there are other expenses, such as digital support on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.
“The Super Bowl has always been immune from price pressures,” he says. “Going forward that might change.”
That’s partly because the risk can be even higher than the cost. Advertisers who make missteps under the severe scrutiny of the Super Bowl are buying trouble. Calkins cites a Nationwide ad in 2015 that was widely criticized for including a dead child.
“People rarely apologize for a piece of advertising on CSI,” he says. “But every year, it seems, there’s a Super Bowl advertiser who has to apologize. The downside risk is something advertisers are really thinking about now.”
Thompson believes the fact so many people watch the game at Super Bowl parties where they’ve been drinking and where they laugh with friends can make the ads seem better than they really are.
“In the most brilliant sleight of hand that Madison Avenue has ever pulled off,” he says, “people have been convinced over decades that the commercials are every bit as important a part of the broadcast as the game and you should probably go to the bathroom during a lull in the game rather than during the commercials.”
Super Bowl commercials capture the most eyeballs, but digital advertising can allow advertisers to target specific consumers while also accurately measuring the effectiveness of their message. President Trump’s election campaign, Calkins says, showed how the creative use of targeted advertising can at times work better than traditional ad buys on television.
“Technology is changing with rapid velocity,” says Mark Tutssel, chief creative officer worldwide for Leo Burnett. “How we consume communication is changing by the second.”
Might the day come when the targeted, trackable ads of the digital age eclipse television advertising on Super Bowls?
“I don’t actually see that happening,” says Marika Roque, vice president of digital activation at Nexstar Digital. She thinks connected TVs will become part of an overall digital strategy.
“We aren’t there yet from a convergence tracking perspective,” she says. “But as we move forward, TV will become just another screen of a digital buy. The TV will always be there, but it will shift to some sort of connected TV buy.”
Shawn McBride, executive vice president, sports, at Ketchum Sports and Entertainment, says for now, Super Bowl ads remain the peak of the mountain.
“If that changes, if public sentiment toward the sport and viewership and metrics start to shift and decline, then yeah, brands will begin to look elsewhere to get bang for their buck,” he says. “But as long as the Super Bowl continues to get all the ratings and eyeballs and important demographics it delivers, you are going to see brands continue to leverage this platform.”