Deep analytical research into the ROI of Super Bowl advertising is sparse, but media experts, researchers and-perhaps most importantly marketers staking their budgets and careers on it-believe the world's costliest media buy may be one of the best.
The reason lies not just in the largest audience available. It's also because the Super Bowl is virtually the only forum left where consumers watch ads for fun and talk about them rather than trying to avoid them, said Mike Hess, director-global research and consumer insights for Omnicom Group's OMD, New York. Super Bowl advertisers also get considerable added value from intensive publicity on TV talk shows and newspapers in the days prior to after the game, he said.
An online survey last year of 500 consumers by InsightExpress found that while 54% of Americans planned to watch the game, 50% were watching specifically for the commercials and 58% said they pay closer attention to ads during the Super Bowl than those they see every day.
"That people are actively engaged in seeing the ads also helps the ROI," Mr. Hess said. "It's well known in experimental psychology that if you discuss something after seeing it ... it helps reinforce the memory."
That gibes with more than a decade of research into recall of Super Bowl advertising by Bruzzone Research Co., Alameda, Calif., which has found week-later recall of Super Bowl advertising is generally better than recall of other prime-time advertising-even when the ad only airs once.
"You're better off buying the Super Bowl than taking an equivalent number of [gross rating points] and buying on prime time in terms of reach and effect," said Don Bruzzone, principal of the firm.
His warning is that the big game magnifies the importance of the creative-for good and bad. The 20% of Super Bowl ads best remembered by consumers in the Bruzzone surveys have eight times the impact, as measured by week-later recall, that the lowest-rated 20% do. Week-after consumer recall for individual ads in last year's Super Bowl ranged from 12% to 79%.
Additional airings of ads that break on the Super Bowl during the week after the game account for only 14% of the difference-another indicator of how much clout the game packs.
That clout has new marketers clamoring for the game despite the cost.
"When we developed our media plan for 2005 ... we modeled several different plans that had your typical prime, cable, syndication mix with other high-impact programs and compared them to a plan that had the Super Bowl in it," said Jeff Cohen, VP-lens and lens care marketing of Novartis' Ciba Vision-North America, a first-time Super Bowl advertiser this year. "It was very clear that this was the most cost-effective way to reach our target of women 18-34."
One factor favoring the big game was a need to get a new brand, 02 Optix contact lenses, off to a fast start, he said. WPP Group's MindShare, New York, also modeled the PR value of media coverage of Super Bowl ads, which figured into the decision.
A "post-gun" ad after last year's Super Bowl for Ciba's Night and Day helped build consumer awareness of the brand 20 percentage points, Mr. Cohen said, delivering a positive return. He's expecting more impact still from being in the game.
`bigger than a buy'
General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac has advertised in the Super Bowl every year since at least 1999. "We've made it bigger than a buy," said Jay Spenchian, marketing director of the brand. "It's extremely effective for us. ... It works very well from an advertising standpoint and experiential marketing."
Since 2002, Cadillac has been the official vehicle of the Super Bowl and sponsored the MVP award, presenting the player a new Cadillac in the post-game show. Cadillac will also offer test-drives and shuttle service in Jacksonville during Super Bowl Week.
The Super Bowl succeeds in part because, as a showcase mainly for first-run ads, it's so unlike the rest of the year, said Erwin Ephron, principal in the media consultancy Ephron Papazian & Ephron. Media fragmentation, combined with a desire to maintain total GRPs in media plans, has led to the same consumers seeing the same ads more often, accelerating wear-out and infuriating consumers, he said.
"That poisons the pond for all the fish," he said. "Even if you're an advertiser who's scrupulous about not repeating ads in the same half hour, if someone else does, people turn the channel."
Of course, not every Super Bowl ad turns the tide for a brand. When Procter & Gamble Co. bought into the game for the first time ever last year, the brand it chose, Charmin, was the only one of its top 20 brands to see volume decline in the first quarter.
"This year's decision not to be a Super Bowl advertiser does not reflect on the success of our participation in 2004," said a P&G spokeswoman. "We are pleased by the overall consumer response and believe that Charmin rose to the occasion." P&G will consider participating in the future, she said.
Even winning the Super Bowl ad contest is no guarantee of success. Last year's best-remembered spot, surprisingly, was a 15-second version of an ad for Energizer Holdings' Schick Quattro that had been running for months, according to Bruzzone Research. Trouble is, 40% of respondents remembered it as an ad for Gillette, vs. 39% who thought it was for Schick.
contributing: jean halliday