Inside the High-Stakes Competition of the Super Bowl Spot

From big stars to even bigger stunts, brands grapple with the best way to make use of TV’s most expensive real estate

On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will battle it out in Super Bowl LIV for football supremacy. But there will be just as intense of a competition during the commercial breaks, as more than 30 different marketers will all try to make their own big splash.

The Super Bowl has led to a super amount of dollars for the TV networks lucky enough to air the big game. Over the previous decade, the NFL’s title game has accounted for $3.66 billion in advertising revenue. Fox, this year’s host, has garnered as much as $5.6 million for a 30-second commercial spot.

The Super Bowl provides an audience that is unparalleled in media, with more than 100 million people watching every year. That’s almost twice the amount of the next-largest TV broadcasts, which are the two NFL semifinal games. The Oscars, which are considered the biggest non-sports TV event every year, drew just under 30 million viewers for its most recent telecast.

“The level of attention and engagement that you get — that is not comparable to anything you see in advertising content,” argues Satya Menon, managing partner, analytics practice for research firm Kantar Media.

But with that super-sized audience comes super-sized expectations. Which begs the question: How do you make a $5 million dollar commercial worth that exorbitant price tag?

“It pretty much it depends on what the brand strategy is within any given year, what we’re trying to accomplish, but it’s clear the Super Bowl provides a real opportunity to make a big impact with a ton of people at the same time,” Hank Izzo, vice president of U.S. marketing for Mars Wrigley, the parent company of well-known candy brands like Skittles, Twix, M&Ms and Snickers, which is getting the Super Bowl treatment this year. “As you just think of the scale of the Super Bowl: It’s the one time of year, honestly, when people are not just watching the game.”

The majority of Super Bowl advertisers are yearly participants. Some, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, buy multiple spots as part of a larger sponsorship deal with the NFL that gives them category exclusivity. For Mars Wrigley, the choice is not whether or not to place an ad during the game, but which of their brands will get the spotlight.

Izzo said that Snickers made sense this year because it’s the 10-year anniversary of the “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign, which debuted during Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.

“I don’t think there’s any one sort of formula for why we pick a specific brand,” Izzo said.

Hyundai is advertising in the Super Bowl for the 12th time — 2015 was the only year the auto-maker didn’t participate.

“Some years are very easy, in that we have a product launch that times up perfectly. So that’s kind of the natural topic,” said Monique Morin Kumpis, Hyundai’s senior group manager for brand marketing and advertising, who has led the company’s Super Bowl efforts since 2010.

This year, the company is launching a new Remote Smart Parking Assist feature in its 2020 Sonata: “It’s just the perfect timing for the Super Bowl.”

No Ordinary Ad

Ask any brand marketer or ad agency executive, and the company line will always be that every commercial is just as important as the next one.

But the Super Bowl is, well, the Super Bowl. “It’s the brass ring,” says Barney Goldberg, executive creator director for Innocean, an ad agency that’s handled numerous Super Bowl ads over the years, including Hyundai’s commercial on Sunday.

“They want to outdo each other,” Goldberg says of the competition between the brands and their agencies. “It becomes a big shootout. And I think that’s why it’s got sort of this heightened sense of, ‘We’ve got to do whatever we can to do well.’ Because it’s such an expensive real estate. You certainly can’t go in there and flop. You’ll never hear the end of it.”

Goldberg says that, for them, the Super Bowl ad process begins in the prior summer, when they start kicking around ideas. They’ll usually have the concept locked in by September or October.

“I know for Super Bowl we wrote over 300 scripts,” he said. “It’s usually not like that on regular projects.”

Also adding to the degree of difficulty: Every other brand and agency is rushing to get their celebrity or director of choice to sign on.

“Generally, everybody is producing around the same time,” Goldberg continues. “The best directors, the best actors or actresses… everybody is getting grabbed at once. You kind of want to get your dance partner early.”

For the agencies, Goldberg said, it’s the one thing that everyone in the company is jostling to work on. Even for those where it’s outside their typical purview.

“This year, the team that won works in, like, kind of a different channel. They’re not necessarily always on brand work,” he said. “It’s fun to be on Super Bowl because it’s the one thing you can point [out] to your friends and family.”

For the brands, the process begins even earlier.

Kumpis said Hyundai began their planning all the way back in April.

“It’s probably more of a nine month to one-year process, versus a regular spot, which would be about six months for a broadcast commercial,” she said.

Despite the massive amount of eyeballs, Izzo said that the Super Bowl is generally not the place to roll out a new ad campaign, but rather build upon the company’s existing campaign. He added that a new campaign launch could take just as long, if not longer, than putting together a Super Bowl spot.

“Many things that obviously wind up going on the Super Bowl are just an amplified version of our existing campaigns. It’s a bit less about the actual campaign and more about the creative idea and the way the campaign is manifesting itself,” he said. “It’s a bit more of an event. We’re getting ready for our big Superbowl Party, which takes a lot more planning.”

The Super Bowl gives brands license to try something unique. During Super Bowl LI in 2017, Snickers filmed a live Super Bowl ad with Adam Driver, which (intentionally) goes awry. In the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl, Planters released its pre-game spot online, which features the “death” of its 104-year old mascot, Mr. Peanut, with plans to air honor the character with a “funeral” during the third quarter (though the real-life tragic death of L.A. Lakers icon Kobe Bryant over the weekend caused the food-maker to rethink at least some of its plans).

But sometimes brands can out-think themselves, argues Kumpis, putting too much emphasis on making that big splash and forgetting to actually promote their message.

“It’s great to be funny; it’s great to pull at your heartstrings. And that is part of our formula, but it has to be wrapped in something that’s distinct to our brand,” she said. “Otherwise, you are wasting all of that money and time. I’ve seen a lot of spots that I thought were really funny — and had nothing to do with the brand.”

Super Bowl Brings Out the Super Stars

Hyundai’s ad has Boston celebrities like John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch, Chris Evans and Red Sox legend David Ortiz. Mountain Dew got Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross to parody “The Shining,” while the aforementioned Planters commercial included Wesley Snipes and Matt Walsh.

But finding the right “dance partner,” as Goldberg puts it, can sometimes be as difficult as kicking a game-winning 50-yard field goal.

“The celebrity roller coaster is like none other, I mean, they’re their own brands,” said Goldberg. “It’s nerve-racking. When stars pass, they don’t always tell you why.” He recalled a particularly harrowing moment from a previous year Super Bowl, when the star didn’t come in until the very end of a three-hour shoot.

“We were we were in the fetal position for a while, going like, ‘This is where my career dies.'” But, as the Chiefs and 49ers are hoping for on Sunday night, this story had a happy ending.

“That’s why you do that roller coaster and take that chance because they will bring things to script that you hadn’t thought of; they’ll make it their own,” he continued. “That star power is worth it; it’s just not for the faint of heart.”

Goldberg said the pre-release of ads and teasers in the weeks before the big game is probably the biggest change he’s seen. What was “unheard of” 10 years ago, is now commonplace.

“I think certain brands started taking shots at releasing it early and then everybody kind of got in on it,” he said.  “Instead of just one day we can make extra content and other interesting things and get more interest for a longer run, so it’s just not Super Bowl Sunday.”

The other major difference? The price.

According to Kantar Media, the average cost for a 30-second spot grew 63%, from $2.77 million in 2010 to $4.51 million in 2019 (it peaked in 2017 at $4.7 million). When does that price get too expensive?

“We haven’t reached that point yet,” says Kumpis. “I’m not really sure what that threshold would be.”

Tim Baysinger

Tim Baysinger

TV Reporter • tim.baysinger@thewrap.com • Twitter: @tim_bays



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