So about two weeks ago, the Neilson Company, those nice folks who keep track of our TV viewing habits, released a survey showing that 51% of Super Bowl viewers prefer watching the commercials, while 49% prefer watching the game. (There could have been a third category for those who prefer watching the cheerleaders, but it’s their survey, not mine.) But while the Super Bowl is big business, a de facto national holiday and a vigorously-defended trademark of the National Football League, it’s possible that it is being consumed by its own success.
The price of an in-game Super Bowl spot peaked at about $3 million in 2008, but has since dropped over the last two years to about $2.5 million. (These are list prices; actual prices depend on many factors such as how many spots are purchased in or around the game, and other spending on the network.) TV programming in general has been facing price pressures on its ad time since before the Great Recession, but the Super Bowl has become advertising’s annual gala, a chance to strut creatively and build buzz in advance of the actual airing of the commercials.
Advertising historians often point to Master Lock padlocks as the first brand to recognize the added value of the Super Bowl as a marketing platform. Starting in 1971, they spent most of their ad budget each year to buy a single spot in the game. The spot barely changed for two decades: Its focal point was a super slo-mo close-up of a bullet being fired through one of their padlocks by a sharpshooter. The bullet blasts through the lock, but it doesn’t open.
The ad is Hall of Fame great-a compelling demonstration tied to a simple brand premise of toughness. If you’re a well-seasoned Super Bowl fan like me, I’ll bet you can remember this ad despite not having seen it for more than 10 years. Master Lock paid about $100,000 for their first spot in the Big Game and blew their advertising cash in this way for most years until 1997 when they were finally priced out of the market.
But the spot that really launched the Super Bowl to new levels as an advertising extravaganza came in 1984 when Apple Computer ran arguably the most famous ad of all time, the aptly named “1984” which introduced (but never actually showed) the Macintosh computer to the world. The ad ran only one time ever, anywhere, but was so clever, dramatic and engaging that it was replayed on newscasts for weeks afterwards. In those dark days before Al Gore invented the Internet, this was an astounding amount of buzz and carryover from a single ad appearance.
And suddenly the race was on.
Each year after 1984, advertisers ratcheted up the ante with splashy spots, over-the-top ad concepts, weeks of pregame hype and endless promotional tie-ins. Showing up to the Super Bowl advertising gala with an ordinary spot that the public has already seen became so 15 minutes ago. Super Bowl spots now had to be new, flashy, and judging by much of recent years’ content, aimed at the mentality of a 14 year-old boy.
Gone are the days of simple demonstrations of quality like Master Lock, or truly unique, yet intelligent spots like Apple’s 1984. Now we are inundated with slapstick punch lines to sensitive areas of the male anatomy, overdone clichés such as cowboys herding cats, and impossibly cute baby Clydesdales stealing our hearts in the name of beechwood aged beer.
This is not to say that there are no more good, brand building, sales-generating spots on the Super Bowl. (Monster.com’s “When I grow up” spot comes to mind.) But I’ll go so far as to suggest that perhaps the price decline is partly due to recognition of the excessive approach that many advertisers had fallen into. This year, GM has been praised for withdrawing from the game in the name of fiscal responsibility. Pepsi, an all-time spending leader on the game and known for putting together spots with mega-budgets and mega stars like Michael Jackson, also will be absent, perhaps licking their wounds after a series of missteps in 2009 with Tropicana, Gatorade and their flagship cola brand.
And maybe, just maybe, on Sunday people will tune in to see the ads and realize there is a decent football game going on. No doubt, the Super Bowl is a hugely valuable brand itself. Just running a spot in the game is good for a brand’s image. But the Big Game may benefit from a little less sizzle and a little more steak.