What 50 years of Super Bowl advertising has taught us

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Analyzing the evolution of Super Bowl advertising campaigns provides relevant insight that is highly useful for today’s marketers. 

The year was 2000. I – like the rest of America – sat down on Super Bowl Sunday with my friends to drink beer and enjoy some football. By most standards, I was a mature, responsible, fully functioning member of society. So why was it that for the next six months was I yelling “WASSUUUUUUP?!” like a lunatic?

You may not remember that Super Bowl XXXIV was between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans, but long after the game was over and the final touchdown thrown, sane people around the country were still yelling “WASUUUP?!” thanks to one very clever and some would say iconic Budweiser commercial.

Speaks to the power of traditional advertising, doesn’t it? Ironically, maybe not.

We all have a Super Bowl ad or two that sticks in our memory. Flipping through a recent slideshow of the top ads of all time, I came across several favorites – Coca-Cola’s Mean Joe Greene and the Horse Showdown from McDonald’s with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Yet with each passing year, agencies and media monitors report that the efficacy of these ads is dropping lower and lower – why?

I reflected on these five lessons as I simultaneously contemplated the demise of my fantasy football team as Super Bowl 50 approaches.

1. The irony of interest

The fact that Super Bowl ads are awaited with such interest ironically highlights the fact that traditional television advertising is dying. No one watches ads anymore, or no one likes to watch ads anymore at least. Now, appointment TV is no longer the norm.

Here’s why:

  • DVR is king.
  • Streaming services, like Netflix or Hulu, have made binge watching commonplace.
  • On the Web, ad blocking is a game of table stakes.

Our ability to isolate fanfare, deep interest, and iconic creativity to one day in the year is testament to the declining effectiveness of television advertising. The meme of start-up – or otherwise companies wasting or burning money on Super Bowl commercials – is part of pop culture.

As marketers, business people, and consumers, we seem to have already moved on to a new reality without taking at least a moment to pay our respects to the old way.

2. More irony: The Super Bowl is drowning itself out

It’s a common argument that the big game itself has been overshadowed by the commercials in previous years. However, now it seems as if even the ads are drowning themselves out.

Super Bowl advertisers that pay millions of dollars for coveted 30-second spots are rotating away from the four hour game block.

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There used to be so much anticipation surrounding the debut of Super Bowl ads. Conventional wisdom was that the brand would draw more viewership to the game and therefore their spot by creating that anticipation.

But at some point, brands started quietly releasing the commercials before the game just so they could get people to pay more attention. Now, it has become routine for brands to release their ads ahead of the big day on digital platforms – but why?

Simply put, this single moment in time is no longer giving businesses the return on investment that they’re looking for.

I think Frito-Lay North America chief marketing officer Ram Krishnan said it best when talking about the company’s Crash the Super Bowl campaign:

“It’s not a one-and-done deal on the game day. It’s basically this five-to six-month engagement program that we had with the consumer,” he said. 

A decade old campaign, Crash the Super Bowl invited anyone to create a Super Bowl ad for Doritos this year. By posting the semi-finalists online and opening up the ads to fan voting, Frito-Lay came up with an ingenious way to create an online channel for consumer engagement.

Here is an example of one of the semi-finalist ads:

It wasn’t enough to just air a one-and-done commercial. Brands have already moved on to the new reality of long-term engagement programs as the requirement.

3. The icon of traditional advertising has gone digital

Frito-Lay’s campaign also taught us that the icon of traditional advertising has happily gone digital. Crash the Super Bowl could not have existed without the ability to forge an ongoing relationship with consumers through the Web.

Taking this a step further, I guarantee (ok, mostly guarantee) that every advertisement you see on Super Bowl Sunday will have some type of digital call-to-action – be it a website to visit, a Twitter handle to follow, a social hashtag to use, or even a promo code to plug in online.

What advertisers are telling us is that traditional advertising – in this case, in the form of television ads – no longer works if it is not digitally connected. This is not just interesting, it’s actually quite useful insight, bridging the gap between television and digital yields more compelling and dynamic content for viewers and consumers.

4. Engagement is the new advertising

Digital has opened up new ways for advertisers to judge the impact of their ads. In this digital era, simple brand awareness is no longer enough to drive the needle. Websites, social, and tagging all enable marketers to see how far their dollar is going.

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A further irony here is that this new reality of advertising turning into digital engagement allows marketers to finally measure in new and precise ways. In the case of the Super Bowl, it provides some justification for tossing millions at a single moment in time.

Actually, in a noisy environment like the Super Bowl, statistics show that it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to even remember what brands the ads are coming from. Low ad recall numbers reflect both the volume of marketing messages consumers are bombarded with daily (more than 3,000, to give you an idea) and also the quality or relevance of this content. Yet, over the last 50 years, Super Bowl Sunday has become perhaps the only day where people don’t skip through the ads on their DVR. They’re paying attention, but not all brand messages are sticking.

Strategies that include an elongated approach to engaging with consumers  in personalized ways over time appears to be the way to break through the noise. Best of all, it can be measured. Brands and marketers are thinking about paid advertising now in fundamentally different ways.

5. There is no replacement for entertaining content

But, there is still one marketing truth that comes through loud and clear here in the Super Bowl Ads: great creativity and storytelling still matters.

Which brands are most likely to get recognized, break through all this noise, and drive real, lasting engagement over time? The brands that supply their audience with the most engaging content.

Super Bowl ads – and all marketing tactics, for that matter – will continue to be just noise until they are both entertaining and relevant to the consumer. It teaches marketers that we need way more good content to accomplish our goals.

In conclusion

The evolution of something as iconic as the concept of Super Bowl advertising gives us fascinating evidence of the powerful and unprecedented speed of transformation in the world of marketing around us. Fifty years from now, one of my successors will likely be making her own observations, marveling at how virtual reality and Amazon’s direct-to-home instant purchases have further changed the nature of marketing and Super Bowl ads… and hopefully there will still be football.

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