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Super Bowl

Under Review: Is Super Bowl Worth $4 Million?

Top Advertisers Share Playbooks on How They Decide to Take the Field -- or Pass -- on Big Game

By Published on . 5

When Butterfinger Brand Manager Jeremy Vandervoet wanted to make a splash for the biggest product debut in the candy bar's 90-year history -- Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups -- he knew exactly where to go: the Super Bowl.

The 2014 game is expected to fetch $4 million for a 30-second spot
The 2014 game is expected to fetch $4 million for a 30-second spot

"We went to the CEO and management team for incremental advertising dollars to fund it and -- literally -- they approved it within five minutes," he said. "We wanted to buy an ad [in the game] to have credibility, to show that we really believe in [the product] and to generate big and broad awareness."

For many brands, the Super Bowl is hardly a no-brainer. Rather, it just might be the most expensive and high-risk decision in all of advertising. For every success story -- think Chrysler's "Imported From Detroit" launched in the 2011 game -- there's a high-profile flop like Groupon's much-criticized ad that same year making light of the plight of Tibet. "The Super Bowl is either the most economical, smart, risk-free thing you can do or the worst mess you can get yourself into," said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer for BBDO North America, who has worked on Super Bowl ads for 14 years.

As brands finalize plans for the Feb. 2 game on Fox -- which is expected to fetch about $4 million for a 30-second spot -- Ad Age caught up with rookie and veteran Super Bowl advertisers to learn how they decide whether to go for it at the game or punt.

Domestic vs. global reach
For the coming Super Bowl, there's a variable that's been absent since 2010: the Winter Olympics. The games begin just five days after the Super Bowl, giving marketers another marquee event for their winter ad dollars. Century 21, which has advertised in the past two Super Bowls, is among those choosing to invest in the weeks-long spectacle over the one big night. The real-estate marketer won't be in the football game, but will be all over the Olympics, including airing ads on NBC and overseas networks, while sponsoring the U.S. men's and women's bobsled teams.

Chief Marketing Officer Bev Thorne said Century 21 is seeking an international audience next year to spur interest in its new global website, which showcases some 500,000 properties. "We are voting with our feet and our dollars, and we are making the investment in the Olympics this year because we think it will be a better investment for us," she said.

While the Super Bowl is aired in some overseas markets, the U.S. accounts for more than 90% of the global audience, compared with the Olympics, which boasts a larger and more widespread international audience, according to Futures Sport & Entertainment, a Mediabrands agency that measures global sports viewing.

But for a lot of brands, nothing compares to the domestic reach of the Super Bowl, which was viewed by an average of 108.4 million people in the U.S. this year on CBS, according to Nielsen, making it the third-most watched event in TV history (following other Super Bowls). "What sets the Super Bowl apart from everything else is that consumers go in with the expectation of wanting to hear these messages and watch the commercials," said Sam Sussman, senior VP-director at Publicis Groupe's Starcom USA, where he oversees advertiser negotiations for sports programs.

But the viewer attention brings plenty of scrutiny as well as rising price tags. The expected $4 million cost is up from last year's $3.8 million for 30 seconds and the average $2.7 million that Nielsen said the game drew in 2008. "It's very unlikely you are going to pay that back with a short-term sales bump, because people don't see an ad on the Super Bowl and then rush out to buy a product the next day," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "The reason advertisers are on the game is because it supercharges their brand. It's just very hard to tie the [sales] numbers specifically back to that media buy."

Making a statement
The game has proved to be a great venue for smaller brands. SodaStream, which sells home soda-making machines, credits its 2013 ad with helping grow distribution to about 16,000 stores from roughly 10,000, said Daniel Birnbaum, the company's CEO. "It's really a statement that we are playing serious. It has opened up doors for us," he said. The marketer, which will be back in 2014, even got a PR boost in global markets blacked out of the game after the company said CBS rejected its original ad because it was a direct hit at Coke and Pepsi, two other Super Bowl advertisers, said Mr. Birnbaum.

Wonderful Pistachios is also returning in 2014 after making its Super Bowl debut this year. Because the brand ran limited TV ads in the winter period, it was able to directly link an 18% sales gain to the in-game ad, said Marc Segiun, VP-marketing for Paramount Farms, which produces Wonderful Pistachios and is part of Roll Global. The brand, which featured South Korean rapper Psy in the ad, is rumored to be considering Miley Cyrus for next year's spot, according to tabloid reports. "The truth is we really just don't know yet what it is going to be," Mr. Segiun said.

Price matters
For some advertisers, the exposure is no longer worth the cost. That group includes Subway, a 2013 Bowl advertiser that is not expected to return in 2014. "Price value always matters to us," said Subway CMO Tony Pace. Like Century 21, the sandwich chain is planning a big Olympic presence instead. "You can make an argument that the total cumulative audience across the Winter Olympics is actually bigger than what you are going to get in the Super Bowl," Mr. Pace said.

According to NBC, the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver drew an average of 24.4 million viewers in prime time for the full stretch of the games, while 190 million people watched some part of the games on NBC Universal's networks.

Cars.com has appeared in every Super Bowl since 2008 but won't return in 2014, mostly because the company isn't breaking a campaign. The marketer also wants to more evenly distribute its media spending throughout the year, said CMO Linda Bartman. "When we launched a new campaign every year through the Super Bowl, you really had to wait until the Super Bowl to start advertising," she said. Now, "we are going to be on all year long."

Instant awareness
Marketers are increasingly justifying the expense by using their Super Bowl ads to tout news like product launches. Nestlé, which is taking on Reese's with its peanut-butter-cup launch, projects that consumer awareness on the product will jump from almost nothing to upward of 50% to 80% on the back of its Super Bowl spot and related PR and digital buzz, Mr. Vandervoet said.

Mars, a regular Super Bowl advertiser, is also planning to make news, said Roy Benin, chief consumer officer for Mars Chocolate North America. He wouldn't disclose details beyond confirming that the marketer will feature Snickers or M&M's.

Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2012 used the first in-game ad (position 1A) to launch Bud Light Platinum and repeated the strategy this year to debut Budweiser Black Crown. Because people watch the game for the ads, "you have a built-in tailwind in launching something and getting people's attention," said Paul Chibe, the brewer's VP for U.S. marketing. A-B InBev also benefits from being the game's exclusive advertiser in the beer category. Mr. Chibe pointed to other categories, such as cars, that don't have exclusivity: "You have a hard time remembering whose ad you saw for what."

Noticeable absence
Car companies sped back into the Super Bowl beginning in 2011, spending some $80 million on game buys that year, following that up with $90.5 million in 2012, according to a Nielsen report earlier this year. In 2013, eight car brands bought ads. General Motors was noticeably absent, but is returning to the 2014 game. If you are a car-marketing executive and not in the game, "you are probably putting your job at risk because everybody else is there," said one marketing exec who is not in the category.

Spots must be clever, funny or engaging, said Steve Shannon, VP-marketing for Hyundai Motor America, which will make its seventh straight Super Bowl ad appearance in 2014 with two ads. "We also do TV spots that are about the car," he said. "It sounds like a quaint idea ... but we need to deliver a product benefit or two." Pointing to Super Bowl ads from unnamed rivals, he said: "While they may have been entertaining, the question is do people remember what brand they are for and did it tell them anything they really need to know about a car?"

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