The commercial 'buzz' behind the big game

The Pringles commercial touts the many varied options for flavor stacking.

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

The Pringles commercial touts the many varied options for flavor stacking.

The commercial 'buzz' behind the big game

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Advertisers shell out millions for airtime during the Super Bowl, but is the investment worth it? UM experts weigh in on that and other aspects of Super Bowl commercials.

The familiar Dalmatian riding atop a Clydesdale-drawn wagon is the first thing viewers see, but in its 45-second commercial that will air during Super Bowl LIII, Budweiser does more than rekindle memories of the iconic symbols that have made it a familiar brand. 

Featuring Bob Dylan’s 1962 song “Blowin” in the Wind” and footage of spinning wind turbines dotting a landscape, Budweiser actually makes a “green” statement, announcing with on-screen text at the end of the commercial that it is now brewed with 100 percent renewable energy. 

Anheuser-Busch paid a pretty penny for its “Wind Never Felt Better” commercial, and other companies have also ponied up for advertising airtime for the most-watch sporting event on TV—CBS is billing more than $5 million for just a 30-second spot. 

But is the lofty price tag worth it? And what strategies are companies employing to make sure they get the most return out of their investments? 

“The cost of one of these ads seems outrageous, but for some brands who must rise above the ad clutter, it’s money well spent,” said William Hughes, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of Strategic Communication at the University of Miami’s School of Communication. “Most consumers are bombarded with hundreds, and by some accounts, thousands of ads a day. They pay attention to very few of them. However, they do pay attention to those made for the Super Bowl. It’s the one time every year advertisers are essentially guaranteed an engaged audience.” 

When the Budweiser commercial and other spots air during Sunday’s big game, it won’t be the first time many viewers have seen them. Continuing a Super Bowl advertising trend that started a few years ago, several companies have already released their ads online, a practice that, on its surface, seems counterintuitive.

“Commercials these days are trying to be the next viral hit,” said Claudia Townsend, associate professor of marketing in the Miami Business School. “Advertisers know that in most cases, save for events like the Super Bowl, viewers have the option to fast forward by a commercial. Today, the ads that are considered the most successful are those that become a viral hit, that people forward to their friends or post on social media. When a consumer comes across an ad in a platform like this, they want to see it, rather than fast-forward through it, because it has a friend’s approval and recommendation. 

“Likely the people who are watching the ads before the Super Bowl are those who are really engaged in the ads,” Townsend continued. “They are the ones that start the buzz going, forwarding and posting the ads and commenting on them. So these viewers are creating the buzz, telling friends to go to YouTube to see the ad. During the game, they will be the ones saying, ‘Don’t refill your drink now, stay for this ad, it’s a good one.’ After the Super Bowl, the buzz dies down fairly quickly. So it makes sense to stretch out the period of buzz.” 

The commercial sneak peeks, said Hughes, are actually “valuable from a brand perspective, at least for now, and there’s minimal cost to do it.” 

Indeed, social media has become a powerful tool for many advertisers that are increasingly aware that consumers are engaging with their smartphones and laptops, in addition to the television screen, during a sporting event like the Super Bowl. 

Townsend noted that one of the most effective ads in Super Bowl history wasn’t even a commercial, but a tweet. During Super Bowl XLVII between the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, the power in the New Orleans Superdome went out in the third quarter, and play was suspended for more than 30 minutes. Oreo cookies, made by Nabisco, seized on the moment, tweeting during the blackout that “You can still dunk in the dark.” Viewers retweeted the message 10,000 times in one hour, according to AdAge. 

“It means that there’s this clear mechanism to get notice and get your message out that’s not one of these hugely expensive commercials,” said Townsend. 

That isn’t to say companies will stop shelling out millions for advertising airtime during the Super Bowl. 

“Before the internet, it was definitely the way to make a big splash, to captivate consumers about your product in an entertaining way, especially those who just watch the Super Bowl for the commercials,” said Sarai Nuñez, an assistant professor of practice in advertising at UM’s School of Communication. “Now you don’t even have to watch the game. You can go online and just watch the commercials. In that sense, it’s not as powerful as it used to be. You can even make the argument that the pricing shouldn’t be as high as it is. But companies know people will watch the Super Bowl, throw Super Bowl parties, and watch Super Bowl commercials. It’s become part of the experience. So it’s actually a pretty good return on their investment, though not as high as it used to be.” 

And the benefits of spending millions of dollars on a 30-second commercial go beyond trying to merely appeal to and attract consumers. “Other audiences besides consumers will be watching,” explained Townsend. “Commercials may also have some ramifications and benefits for investor relations. It suggests that you’re a strong, successful business to be spending this much money. It’s a strong signal of success.” 

One commercial that won’t be airing during this year’s Super Bowl is Gillette’s “We Believe” ad, strategically released before the big game, some say, to capitalize on the advertising spotlight. Making use of images of “toxic masculinity,” the ad calls on men to stand up against sexual harassment and bullying, with a voiceover that intones, “Is this the best a man can get?” 

The ad has sparked controversy, but it’s not the first to do so. A Cheerios commercial that featured an interracial couple and their child that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl created a stir among some people. 

“Taking a political stance of any sort will cause buzz,” said Townsend. “Ultimately, the brand cares most about its target. If the message resonates with the majority of the target, then it’s a hit. If there are people who don’t like it, but they are either in the minority and/or are not part of the brand’s target, then the appreciation and positive buzz is worth a little backlash.” 

Said Nuñez, “[Gillette] would be crazy not to know that their ad would be a little polarizing. I don’t think they thought it would be as polarizing as it has been, but it was a risk they were willing to take. As an advertising move, it was ingenious. I haven’t heard anyone talk about Gillette in years. Now everybody’s talking about them. The name is on people’s minds. How that will eventually play out remains to be seen. It was a bold move. But when you do something like that, it needs to be followed through. It can’t be done just as a stunt. Today, audiences are more sophisticated.”