An Ad Block on the Olympics or One Unit on the Super Bowl?

Each Mega Sports Event Has Its Pluses and Minuses

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With the Summer Olympics opening July 27 and the NFL pre-season a week or so later, it's a good time to pose this advertising quandary: Which option is the wiser choice, buying a block of ads on the Olympics, spread, let's say, over two weeks, or one unit on the Super Bowl?

As contemporary marketing evolves to incorporate websites, YouTube postings, Tweets, Facebook "likes" and blogs, brands might do well to draw insights from comparing these two titans of American sports media.

There is , of course, no right answer because brand objectives vary, audience composition or demography can fluctuate based on pre-event hype , and reach vs. frequency is a sucker's play. The beauty of each strategic variable is almost always held in the eye of the brand's CMO or CEO.

Both mega-events offer a global following and are expensive for the advertiser. They each invite competitive ambush efforts, particularly when the televising network sells units to a competitor of the sports property's "official" partner. Thus marketing execs are always on edge when they announce their intentions to advertise on these must-see dayparts. Both the Olympics and Super Bowl are saturated with frantically creative units or increasingly cluttered, so that make many ads disappear the moment the clock strikes :30.

The quadrennial Summer Olympics traditionally run across the "soft" ratings window of July - August, when conventional wisdom holds that no one in North America is watching television. (That blinkered thinking goes out the window however, when a once-in-a-lifetime athlete like swimmer Michael Phelps is on track to win eight gold medals, as he did in August 2008.)

The Olympics offer an advertiser the luxury of selecting prime-time and fringe units across 17 days of competition and commentary, plus two lengthy halftime shows at the opening and closing ceremonies. For some advertisers, there is the added advantage of being able to show scantily clad females in skimpy-uniform sports such as swimming, gymnastics, track and field, beach volleyball and water polo -- and not have it considered provocatively sexual. This serves to attract both male and female eyeballs. To wit, the Olympics are a less sexist play.

But hold on, you say.

The NFL's Super Bowl is usually the most-watched TV event in any year, draws a strong female viewership, generally features a favorable CPM for cost-conscious brands and invites media scrutiny of a brand's creative. USA Today annually stages an advertising competition, loosely drawn from selected day-of -game research, that crowns the Super Bowl advertising champion (usually a commercial featuring humor and animals and traditionally won by a volume brand like Pepsi, Snickers, Bud Light or Doritos.

Better still, the Super Bowl viewing experience is generally conducted in a very social setting, with half-inebriated experts (a very distinct peer group) holding forth on which ads are working or failing. People gather to watch the Super Bowl and its halftime show with mega performers like the Stones, Who or Bruce Springsteen, and talk about the ads the moment they air and again the next day at the water cooler Thanks to the tradition and nature of the advertising competition, Super Bowl ads also get a lot of replay on newscasts and through Youtube, which Olympics ads probably do not.

My guess is that from an ad-agency perspective, the choice would favor a single unit in the Super Bowl. Copy writers and art directors have built entire careers off one ad (let's take Apple's famous 1984 spot) that seemed to change the world or move the needle. And there's no question that when account execs trot out the agency reel or drive viewers to the agency's website, Super Bowl ads stand out distinctively.

But let's not overlook the residual benefits of creating Olympic-themed advertising that embraces American patriotism and the concept of grass-roots America raising a world champion. Since the Summer Olympics always fall during an American presidential election year, Olympic-themed spots that showcase positive core values gain added resonance.

As we know, there is no right answer. The Super Bowl is the most expensive buy, but delivers the greatest reach and awareness. The Summer Olympics is perhaps more expansive and capable of tugging on some very nuanced heartstrings. So … pop-quiz hot shot: Which would you choose?

Rick Burton, David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University, is the former advertising manager for Miller Lite Beer and CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
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