News & Events

Super Buzz Not As Loud for Super Bowl Ads

There was a time once when millions of people tuned in to the Super Bowl mostly to watch the ads, when companies let the creativity flow and casual fans ignored the usually forgettable game and talked instead about the frogs or the football-playing, cartoon, beer bottles or the little boy whose life's ambition is a brown nose.

But that's changed the last few years, and only in part because the games have been unusually thrilling. That's also because the ads are not as often the theater they once were, with campaigns scaled back, production costs reigned in and the zaniness tempered.

Tom Gruca, a marketing professor in the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, said not as many companies put as much of their advertising eggs in the Super Bowl basket anymore, so fewer of them focus on spending big money on a commercial they hope will produce the next pop culture catch phrase. A poor economy and increasingly fragmented media universe have combined to create a situation where today, with the Super Bowl just a few days away, the only commercial to generate any significant pre-game buzz is an anti-abortion issues spot featuring former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

"Advertising on the Super Bowl is still a big deal, but not in the way it was during the economic bubble years, when we had marching bands attacked by wolves," said Gruca. He said the fragmentation of media audiences and the rise in importance of social media to reach consumers is making the game less necessary.

"Many advertisers are shifting their spending and strategic focus to online marketing that offers a better return, so making a big splash on the Super Bowl is not as cost-effective for many companies anymore," he said.

But that same media fragmentation means the Super Bowl will always be a big ad buy for many advertisers because it's not easy to reach an audience approaching 100 million viewers at once anymore. "It's still one of the few secular holidays where people are gathered around the TV, and that can't be ignored," Gruca said. He notes that ratings for one-time must-see annual TV events like the Oscars and World Series have dropped precipitously in recent years. Macy's Thanksgiving Parade is mostly a curiosity now, and the Miss America pageant, once a national institution, has been relegated to an obscure cable channel.

The Super Bowl is still a Nielsen behemoth, so advertisers will always produce flashy ads they hope become memorable and pay a premium to air them. But he said the days of over-the-top spending are probably gone.

All of which may not be the best news for the NFL, or for the networks carrying the game that now have had to charge lower ad rates than in recent years. But it could be good news for smaller companies that can finally access the game's massive audience.

"With a number of past sponsors like GM and Pepsi skipping the event, there may be opportunities for others to introduce themselves to a large audience," he said. "This gives some of their competitors a chance to introduce themselves. If I were a company like Hyundai, I'd be buying time on the Super Bowl."


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