By Patrick Haas

Patrick Haas

There’s a reason it’s called The Greatest Show on Earth. What other major sports event can bring three disparate audience bases together in just a single broadcast? For the sports fan? Sixty minutes of drama on the gridiron. More into your music? Here’s Rihanna’s comeback Half-Time show. For the marketers? Well, we had the commercials.

On every count, Super Bowl LVII did not disappoint. Patrick Mahomes embroidered his flourishing career with a second ring, as the Chiefs edged the Eagles in a nail-biter. Rihanna was, well, Rihanna – firing up her back catalogue of hits to thrill fans.  And, as Mahomes and Jalen Hurts went head-to-head on the turf, a battle of the ads was waging simultaneously on our TV screens, as brand’s vied for creative supremacy in a different kind of spectator sport.

Each year, nearly one third of Americans tune into the live broadcast of the Super Bowl, and according to Fox, the 70 commercials that ran during Super Bowl LVII cost $7 million on average. That’s up £500,000 on 2022, cementing the event’s reputation as America’s biggest stage for advertising and the pre-eminent proving ground for marketers, advertisers and creatives – brand and agency-side – seeking to make their name.

Little wonder the NFL recently inked a $10bn p/a media rights deal. In the Super Bowl, they have a product seemingly immune to market forces at play in the wider sports industry, such as the fragmenting interests and viewing habits of younger generations.

Yet, it’s one thing paying for an advert, quite another making a successful one that resonates with audiences long into the future. Christmas aside, it is the one time of the year that those watching actually take an active interest in the subject matter. And that audience just so happens to be the biggest single-day live audience in the U.S.

This level of interest and scale are why the brands pay the big bucks, and why the stakes are so high. Get it right and you can win yourself a place in the hearts and minds of over 100 million Americans. Get it wrong and well… best not to dwell on that too much.

One brand that did it right this year is The Farmer’s Dog, with a very effective ad that pulled on the heartstrings. In an emotional rollercoaster ad spot titled “forever,” a girl goes through all her life experiences alongside her chocolate lab. The ad ends with her, expressing emotion, holding her baby child and petting the now elder dog. This commercial, which you can view below, was delivered completely in-house by the near decade-old dog food subscription service, shows how powerful an ad can be when it’s both relatable and draws on the emotions of the audience.

Another contender for the top spot featured not one, but TWO brands, as General Motors (GM) collaborated with Netflix. This joint Super Bowl commercial saw Will Ferrell get thrown in the Netflix original content gauntlet as several different GM Electric vehicles (EVs) were distinctly shown off. This is a part of Netflix push to include an electric vehicle in every TV series or movie they produce moving forward (as part of a larger deal brokered last year). For GM, they are looking to boost recognition and awareness of their new EVs, and they certainly did that seamlessly. The commercial was both entertaining and easy to understand, something brand collaborations can often miss the mark on.

So, what makes a good ad? 

Firstly, they are topical – capturing a current moment, mood, trend or topic. In short, they are relevant. I think back to a time of great uncertainty, and to Chrysler turning to the dulcet tones of Clint Eastwood to offer a halftime talk to America as it recovered from recession. Over a decade on and that message is arguably more poignant today than it was then. Yet, even that message divided opinion, illustrating the magnitude of the task at hand.

More recently, we saw the Covid-19 pandemic influence the sentiment of ads in 2021 and 2022. While brands opted not to reference it directly, recovery and redemption were common themes. Examples like Budweiser teaming up with the Oscar-winning Director Chloé Zhao to subtly remind viewers that ‘down does not mean out.’

Secondly, they need to be authentic, with the ad recognizable and consistent with the brand’s essence. For thirty years, Always has been supporting girls in the unsettling transition to puberty, which is why its 2015 ‘Like a Girl’ ad felt right and hit the mark.

This year the M&M ads certainly cut through the clutter with its first commercial. After M&M’s parent company Mars Wrigley put the brands marquee cartoon characters to the side in late January, new spokesperson Maya Rudolph pretended to announce a switch from the regular M&Ms chocolate candies to ‘Ma&Yas clam candies’. Near the end of the Super Bowl, M&M had another ad spot in which the ‘spokescandies’ announced “They’re back for good.” Overall, M&M did an elaborate publicity stunt ahead of the big game that ended up reiterating their brand values regardless of public debate. Super Bowl advertisers have continuously used this strategy in recent years. Brands will use social media and digital channels to tease the ad that ultimately creates earned media ahead of their Super Bowl commercials.

Finally, the surprise factor is another important – if riskier – element. Be funny, weird, unexpected, shocking, nostalgic or emboldening. Think Hyundai’s Smart Park spot with John Krasinski, or Amazon’s Mind-Reader taking us inside the mind of Scarlett Johansson.

Whatever it is, it should make people feel something. Only then can an advert begin to cut through the ‘who was that again?’ barrier, which trips many of the runners and riders in this race.

This year, Michelob certainly hit on all of the above. The ad paid homage to a very nostalgic sports comedy Caddyshack, Serena Williams plays Ty Web, Brian Cox plays Judge Smails, Tony Romo plays Carl Spackler, and the original co-star Michael O’Keefe had his own added cameo. With other noteworthy athletes featured within it, the commercial ends with the slogan “It’s only worth it if you enjoy it.” This ad was a part of a larger list of other nostalgic commercials on Super Bowl Sunday that advertisers knew would resonate well with viewers.

And who gets a spot on the roster?

Any business with deep enough pockets to pay for the spots. Part of the fun is that the Super Bowl attracts a broad church of brands, from the major players to the ‘gorillas’ who have to find innovative and inexpensive ways to cut through outside of the main broadcast.

CPG, alcohol, apparel, automotive, technology, fantasy sports or betting brands – who we may also refer to as endemic in this case, routinely feature on the in-game spots, and 2023 was no different. Their tangible links to the sports fan, and the viewing experience, make the risk-reward conundrum one they are invariably willing to take.

Yet there are opportunities from left-field, too, with scripts for Super Bowl ads often influenced by current and future trends. Last year it was the turn of cryptocurrencies, and whilst they provoked heated debate, there was certainly curiosity.

The Super Bowl is fertile ground for disruptors. Trace through the archives and you will see a rich history of these types of brands, all the way back to a certain tech start-up introducing the Macintosh computer back in 1984. This is part of what excites the fans, chiming with America’s broader challenger mindset. U.S. culture is one which champions the underdog and not one that would want networks to limit which industries are ‘safe’ enough to partake.

What does the future hold for Super Bowl adverts?

Wider trends would suggest an appetite for more behind-the-scenes type content to be integrated into the viewing experience. Sports docuseries’ have had a meteoric rise in the last three years. Could elements of that play out in the Super Bowl broadcast? Mimicking the popular ManningCast show but for the ad-world. Creatives, CMOs, featured talent and the like, would be invited in for short segments to add color to their spot – reacting in real-time with pride for a hit or introspection for a dud. This targeted content would talk to the millions of ad-world acolytes tuning in.

Either way, the costs do not seem to be in danger of decreasing. In an era of financial uncertainty, that could be prohibitive for some brands pushing them towards other marketing avenues around the big game.

And the Super Bowl itself?

More valuable than ever. A timely reminder to the sceptics that live sport remains unmatched in its ability to breakthrough and build relationships with distracted or distrusting audiences