Why Canadians can’t watch most American Super Bowl commercials
Once upon a time, Canadian football fans could tune into their network of choice on Super Bowl Sunday and watch the exact same game—and more importantly to some, the exact same commercials—as their neighbors to the south.
A fragile peace allowed Canadians and Americans alike to raise their glasses to the Bud Knight, cheer at Doritos’ celebrity cameos and indulge in WeatherTech’s patriotic made-in-America messaging. But that arrangement was short-lived. After a series of tense cross-border political interventions, millions of dollars worth of mistargeted TV advertising, and a protracted legal battle that made its way to Canada’s highest court, U.S. Super Bowl commercials were wiped from Canadian airwaves as quickly as they’d arrived.
So, just how did America’s closest ally wind up outlawed from watching most of its best Big Game commercials on live TV? It’s complicated.
The law of the land
To understand the context of the situation, it’s important to understand “CanCon.” Shorthand for “Canadian content,” the term describes an umbrella of laws that require the publication of work written, produced or contributed to by Canadians for the sake of leveling the United States’ competitive advantage in most media. (Canadian radio stations are legally obligated to play at least 35% home-grown music, for example.)
Being unable to watch American Super Bowl commercials is nothing new for those north of the border, who were long barred from enjoying them as CanCon-adjacent regulations limited wider broadcasts. But that began to change in 2013 when Canada’s national regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, undertook a sweeping public consultation about the country’s entire TV system.
“The Commission received 458 complaints regarding simultaneous substitution,” which allows networks to swap one TV feed for another interchangeably, according to CRTC's final report. “Of these complaints, 20% were related to commercials that were broadcast during the Super Bowl, with viewers preferring to have seen the U.S. commercials instead of the Canadian commercials,” the report said. In response, it issued a unique order in 2016: because many considered Super Bowl commercials to be integral to the event itself, Canadian TV would no longer be bound by “simsub” and networks could freely broadcast U.S. versions of the game, commercials and all.
Many Canadian football fans rejoiced at the decision, and from 2017 to 2019, audiences were able to watch identical broadcasts to their American counterparts. (A quirk of this order is that viewers were occasionally subjected to ads for products not available in Canada, such as Hulu, T-Mobile and Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer.) But as the Super Bowl was being viewed in its entirety by Canadians for the first time in recent memory, a chorus of discontent was growing.
See you in court
Bell Media, which owns Canada’s Super Bowl-carrying network CTV, promptly went to court alleging the CRTC had overstepped its bounds with its 2016 decision and that it was losing millions of dollars from Canadian advertisers as a result. The NFL backed Bell’s suit early on to protect the value of its international Super Bowl broadcasting rights, which have also been sold to the likes of Mexico’s Azteca, Britain’s Sky Sports and Australia’s Foxtel, among others.
“It’s a huge opportunity for advertisers to get their message across,” says Judy Davey, VP, media policy and marketing capabilities at the Association of Canadian Advertisers. But when simsub rules were relaxed, Canadian audiences decentralized from CTV in a blow to licensee Bell’s inventory value. “With fragmentation, messaging opportunities diminish," says Davey.
Politicians soon weighed in. Sens. Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson wrote a letter to Canada’s ambassador in Washington criticizing the CRTC’s move, while some well-connected allies slipped a simsub provision into a draft of the new USMCA trade agreement. The ACA filed a legal intervention in support of Bell with Canadian acting union ACTRA, Davey says, citing the “detrimental” impact the ruling had on the country’s creative talent pool. “It was a really sad decision that [the CRTC] made.”
Bell Media even called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to invoke a clause in Canada’s Broadcasting Act that forces networks to broadcast “any program … of urgent importance to Canadians”—a provision designed more for national emergencies than for Super Bowl ads.
“I believe the vast majority of Candians, they thought this was a good thing,” says University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, adding that the lack of American ads was an “ongoing source of frustration” for many viewers.
“If you look at other major sporting events that are broadcast in Canada … they are all available with two feeds, and nobody says anything about that. You know, the Olympics, the World Series, the Stanley Cup,” he adds. “You get those choices and the advertisers adapt.”
Multiple legal challenges were dismissed until the case was taken up in December 2019 by the Supreme Court of Canada, which eventually ruled 7-2 in Bell’s favor, finding that the CRTC “lacked the authority” to make its original decision. Permitting glitzy U.S. Super Bowl spots and competing broadcasts to run at the expense of Canadian advertisers did not justify a public interest defense, the majority wrote in their opinion, ending Canada’s free-for-all era of Super Bowl ads for good.
Left in the lurch
The Supreme Court’s ruling came barely a month before Super Bowl LIV, leaving Canadian advertisers little time to calibrate their media planning. The result was a marketing hodgepodge; select big-budget American ads licensed to air globally, purpose-built Canadian spots for domestic brands, and reruns of prescription drug commercials to fill space all ran side-by-side as Kansas City trounced San Francisco.
“That ended up being a little bit of a scramble for us,” Mike Giepert, executive creative director at Wealthsimple, says of last year’s game. “But kind of big picture with all of this, no matter what the rulings have been, the Super Bowl continues to be a good strategy for us.”
The online wealth management service has advertised in Canada during four of the past five Super Bowls, and will appear again this Sunday with a humorous three-part ad created in-house for its new Wealthsimple Tax service, Giepert confirms. Starring Noah, Medusa and Frankenstein, the commercials make a point that anyone can do their taxes, and follow the company’s large-scale media kickoff formula that has previously seen Wealthsimple run as many as six individual ads during the game’s Canadian broadcast.
But Wealthsimple wasn’t the only advertiser to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s ruling. Canadian food delivery app SkipTheDishes used 2020 to make its Super Bowl debut, casting “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm in a spot from Toronto creative agency Arrivals + Departures. Meat distributor Maple Leaf Foods, meanwhile, used the opportunity to make its second-ever appearance with a 30-second commercial from Sid Lee that promoted the company’s sustainability initiatives.
Budweiser also came up with a unique approach for the Canadian market, partnering with Uber to retool its iconic “Whassup” campaign from DDB that first graced the Super Bowl 21 years ago. But instead of a trio of dudes talking on a flip phone—how retro!—the AnheuserBusch brand refreshed the catchphrase to be spoken by every smart speaker in a very well-connected home.
Hyundai ultimately took a different route than many of its peers. Rather than cobbling together a uniquely Canadian ad, or resurrecting a classic, the automaker’s Canadian arm acquired the international rights to Innocean’s main Boston-themed “Smaht Pahk” spot starring John Krasinski.
The Supreme Court decision “changed our strategy a bit” but didn’t hinder the company’s overall media efforts outside the U.S., Vito Sacchetti, Hyundai Canada's national manager of marketing communications, told the Canadian Press ahead of Super Bowl LIV. “To bring in an American commercial this year is just because it worked for us, it's a great commercial and we wanted to take advantage of it.”
It’s kind of a big deal
The numbers don’t lie: Canada loves the Super Bowl. Last year, a record-breaking 18.7 million unique Canadian viewers—equaling 51% of the entire national population—tuned in to watch the Chiefs-49ers matchup, with an average audience of 9.5 million being clocked across networks CTV, TSN and French-language RDS, according to data from Numeris.
To put that figure into perspective, Super Bowl LIV attracted more than three times the total unique viewership of the 2019 Grey Cup, which is the Canadian Football League’s equivalent championship matchup. And while more than half of Canada’s population watched at least part of last year’s game, only 45% of Americans did the same, giving the Great White North a leg up in per-capita viewership.
Perhaps even more startling than those A-plus engagement statistics is the bang Canadian advertisers get for their buck during the game. A 30-second national Super Bowl ad in the United States is priced at $5.6 million; that same inventory costs as little as $153,000 on CTV, according to Standard Media Index data.
“Our media dollars go a lot further,” says Giepert, a former employee of Wieden+Kennedy Portland, citing Canada’s lower CPM. “For American brands that have a presence in Canada, I think they would be smart to look into advertising on a mass scale in Canada.”
While Bell’s single-event ad sales haul doesn’t approach that of the American broadcaster, which nets nearly half a billion dollars annually from selling Super Bowl airtime, the Canadian media giant had reason to fight. In 2017, the first year international broadcasts were allowed, at least 40% of Canadians opted to watch the Big Game via a U.S. feed, according to research conducted by Communications Management for Bell.
“When simsub returned in 2020, we saw a significant increase in advertiser demand,” says Perry MacDonald, Bell Media’s senior VP of sales for CTV. “We were very pleased with the decision to reinstate the Super Bowl simsub. But most importantly, the decision creates a great opportunity for our advertising partners to get to reach millions more viewers in the Super Bowl broadcast.”
The value of the Super Bowl for Canadian advertisers is hard to understate, adds Giepert. “And over time, I think the cost of advertising during the Super Bowl in Canada is just going to go up.”
He might be onto something: after Canada’s simsub rules were reinstated in late 2019, the year-over-year cost of Super Bowl ad inventory on CTV jumped by 143%, Standard Media Index’s data shows. “In fact, for all three years prior to 2020, without simsub the average unit cost was less than $80,000, reflecting the lower audience as many Canadians chose to watch the U.S. feed,” says Darrick Li, SMI’s managing director in Canada.
This weekend’s game is the first that will give Canadian advertisers sufficient lead time to cut together a flagship ad, if they want one, though it remains to be seen what the full makeup of Super Bowl ads will look like north of the border. While a few brands, such as Wealthsimple, Ricola and Heinz, have confirmed their Canadian presence in this year’s Chiefs-Buccaneers game, there’s little tradition of releasing teasers and drumming up press ahead of the commercials’ debut broadcast, unlike in the U.S.
And for Canadian viewers who are itching to see all the buzzworthy American Super Bowl commercials, they’ll have to settle for the internet’s vast archives.