Advertisers Debate Whether Super Bowl Buys Are No-brainers Or Brainless

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“The Super Bowl is either the most economical, smart, risk-free thing you can do or the worst mess you can get yourself into,” BBDO chairman and chief creative officer Dave Lubars told Advertising Age November 4.

As the 2014 game approaches, advertisers have started debating which it is.

One debating point is the high cost of air time – $4 million for a 30-second spot, or $133,333 per second, a Super Bowl record. Another is that another big-time sports television event – the 2014 Winter Olympics, sin Sochi, starts airing just five days later.

For some advertisers, like the Nestle senior managers who approved incremental ad dollars for their Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups introduction on the Super Bowl “literally – …within five minutes,” according to brand manager Jeremy Vandervoet, the buy was a no-brainer. But to a growing number of brands, a Super Bowl buy is starting to look just a wee bit brainless.

Here are some of the pros and cons:

  • Pro – You can be a big hit, like Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” launch in the 2011 game.
  • Con – You can be a big flop, like Groupon’s commercial making fun of the plight in Tibet the same year.
  • Pro – You reach television’s biggest audience. This year’s Super Bowl reached 108.4 million viewers, the third-largest audience in television history, according to Nielsen. (The two that beat it were also Super Bowls.)
  • Con – 90 percent of that audience is in the US. That’s why Century 21, which was an enthusiastic Super Bowl advertiser this year and last, will be “voting with our feet and dollars, and…making the investment in the Olympics,” CMO Bev Thorne declared. With a new global website showcasing half a million properties in 67 countries outside the US, that makes sense. For them.
  • Pro – It’s a big investment, but it pays off quickly. SodaStream CEO David Birnbaum claims his company’s :30 this year increased distribution of their home soda-making machines and syrups from 10,000 to 16,000 stores. Marc Seguin, Paramount Farms VP-marketing, claims his company’s Wonderful Pistachios commercial with gangnam rapper Psy boosted sales 18 percent, so of course they’ll be back next year – according to rumors, with Miley Cyrus, who, after their spot with a Kim Jong Un lookalike nuking Dennis Rodman, may be something of an anticlimax.
  • Con – It’s a big investment that never pays off. “It’s very unlikely you are going to pay that [investment] back with a short-term sales bump,”opines Northwestern University marketing professor Tim Calkins, “because people don’t see an ad on the Super Bowl and then rush out to buy a product the next day.”
  • Pro – The Super Bowl gets you a huge audience all at once. As noted above, 108.4 million viewers last year, the overwhelming majority of whom, unlike with other telecasts, are watching mainly for the commercials.
  • Con – The Winter Olympics gets you a bigger audience, spread over more days. NBC says its airing of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver drew an average of 24.4 million prime-time viewers throughout the whole event, while 190 million watched some part of the games on NBC Universal’s networks. So your message gets more frequency. With an average of just 12.6 million viewers for each of the Winter Olympics’ 17 days, you’ll need it.
  • Pro – All the brands in your product category are advertising on the Super Bowl. This year, eight count ’em eight car manufacturers advertised on the Super Bowl. Next year, with GM returning, the total could be nine. If you’re a car brand manager who’s sitting out the game, a marketing executive from another industry told Ad Age, “you are probably putting your job at risk because everybody else is there.”
  • Con – All the brands in your product category are advertising on the Super Bowl. That’s why for the past two years, Anheuser-Busch InBev paid a premium to run in the first in-game slot and to be the Super Bowl’s only beer advertiser. Otherwise, says VP for US marketing Paul Chibe, “You have a hard time remembering whose ad you saw for what.”

So if you’re an advertiser with $4 million (plus production budget) burning a hole in your pocket, it looks like a toss-up. You pays yer money an’ you takes yer choice.

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