February 1, 2013 5:22 pm

The ad zone

How Super Bowl commercials became a cultural phenomenon
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick©Getty Images

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick

When Bernie Goldblatt first appeared on Twitter in December last year, using the profile GrandpaGold, he described himself as “just your average 87-year-old living the dream.”

The octogenarian has tweeted frequently on a range of subjects (“My grandson just said I dress like a hipster. I hope that’s a good thing”) and, in mid-January, told his followers he was preparing his mobility scooter for “some serious scooting”. Later that day, a 54-second video, “Grandpa Goes Wild”, appeared on YouTube, showing Goldblatt taking a late-night joyride through an empty American football field, popping wheelies and knocking over cones on his “souped-up” scooter. The video has, to date, been watched more than 500,000 times.

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Goldblatt’s video and Twitter account are both part of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign for the Tex-Mex fast-food chain Taco Bell. The campaign is designed to reach a peak on Super Bowl Sunday with a TV commercial that shows Goldblatt sneaking out of a retirement home with a posse of silver-haired friends for a night on the town involving a trip to a tattoo parlour and a Taco Bell feast. The 60-second spot ends with a free dessert offer that consumers can cash in at Taco Bell restaurants the day after the game.

Taco Bell’s months’ long warm-up testifies to the huge commercial and cultural reach of Super Bowl Sunday, a defining event in the calendars of both American football and the advertising industry. On Super Bowl Sunday a 30-second commercial during the nearly four-hour-long television broadcast can cost up to $4m. Brian Niccol, Taco Bell’s chief marketing officer, says: “The Super Bowl is still the biggest medium to reach all of your different customers. The platform is more than just the game. It is the lead-up, the pregame parties, the postgame parties, and the next week talking about what happened.”

Back in 1967, when the Green Bay Packers of Wisconsin defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in Los Angeles, the TV audience for the first Super Bowl was split across two broadcasters, and 30 seconds of commercial time cost advertisers $42,000.

Bernie Goldblatt

Bernie Goldblatt from this year’s Taco Bell campaign

But professional football was fast becoming America’s favourite spectator sport and the National Football League and media companies realised the Super Bowl could be a different kind of sporting event. Unlike other American sports, such as baseball, a single game determines the ultimate winner in the NFL.

Recognising its unique hold on public attention and potential for generating ad revenue, broadcasters began to pay huge fees for the rights to televise the games. Along with the NFL, they set about positioning the Super Bowl not simply as an athletic contest but also as a patriotic and cultural celebration. The half-time show, for instance, features world-famous entertainers, from Madonna last year to Beyoncé this weekend.

Last year, an estimated US TV audience of 159m tuned in to watch some portion of the game. Leslie Moonves, chief executive of US network CBS, which has the rights to broadcast this year’s matchup, describes the day as a “national holiday” in the US, a communal event rivalled only by Christmas and Thanksgiving. This weekend’s game in New Orleans, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, is expected to draw record TV audiences.

“It doesn’t matter if you are from any state or any city, if you were born here or if you moved here. If you are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or non-denominational. It is the one day where everybody in America has something really fun and in common that you share,” says Mark Waller, chief marketing officer of the NFL, with only a little hyperbole. “The Super Bowl is America’s great campfire.”

. . .

The Super Bowl is, of course, also a festival of consumerism on a massive scale. The National Retail Federation expects total spending on new TVs for viewing parties, snacks, decorations and Super Bowl clothing to reach $12.3bn this year. According to the greeting cards manufacturer Hallmark, which sells a range of football-themed greeting cards and decorations, Super Bowl Sunday is the top at-home party event of the year.

It’s also second only to Thanksgiving as the US’s biggest eating day. According to the National Chicken Council, an estimated 1.23bn chicken wings will be consumed in the US on Sunday – enough to stretch from San Francisco to Baltimore 27 times. Super Bowl Sunday is as much a contest between advertisers as it is a sporting competition.

This year, with CBS selling 30 seconds of commercial time for a record $4m, about $133,333 a second (nearly twice the rates charged a decade ago), a roster of Super Bowl veterans, such as Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola will line up against rookies including BlackBerry, SodaStream and Gildan Activewear.

For the advertisers whose spots stand out among the 60 or so commercials, the massive audience the Super Bowl delivers can help put the spotlight on a brand, introduce a little-known product to the masses, and spur sales. Merely announcing plans to advertise during the big game leads to a rise in the stock price for publicly traded companies, according to a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“There is no event in the year that has more eyeballs on it that are actively engaged and tuned in,” says Angelique Krembs, vice-president of marketing for Pepsi. For Pepsi, as for others, the Super Bowl is a party it simply can’t afford to miss.

. . .

It was in 1984, when Apple broadcast a commercial to introduce the Macintosh computer, that the Super Bowl spot began to assume bigger cultural significance. “1984” was a minute-long Ridley Scott-directed ad that nodded to George Orwell and ended with a beautiful blonde in orange shorts throwing a hammer at a giant screen that depicted an image of Big Brother.

The ad aired just once on daytime TV but attracted such attention that it was featured on news broadcasts and later screened in movie theatres. It also set off a race among advertisers to create cinematic ads that would entertain audiences as much as the Super Bowl itself.

And last year, according to the online measurement firm Visible Measures, Super Bowl ads were viewed online about 400m times, outstripping even the huge TV audience for the game. Many viewers, claim other researchers, are as interested in watching the commercials as the actual football game – and even in watching them again and voting for their favourites in various online polls afterwards.

For the ad agencies, there is intense pressure to deliver. As soon as the ads have gone live, pundits appear on news outlets to deliver their verdicts. Social media conversations are monitored and the impact on sales is tracked. For advertisers, the balance is delicate. Viewers will quickly dismiss or forget dull commercials. Brand messages can get lost in an attempt to tell increasingly ambitious stories, with people remembering the celebrity starring in the commercial but forgetting the product being sold.

Attempts at humour can also be risky. In 2011, the online coupon company Groupon ran an ad describing the plight of people in Tibet, then showed a scene of people at a Tibetan restaurant who bought a deal through Groupon. The company later pulled the ad.

Already this year an ad for Volkswagen, which shows a white office worker speaking in a Jamaican accent, has sparked criticism. An ad for SodaStream that knocked competitors Coke and Pepsi was rejected. In its place SodaStream will air an ad, banned in the UK, that shows exploding soda bottles.

David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of advertising agency BBDO North America, says that in a typical year only three to four ads will stand out. “The truth is that a lot of these commercials are not good value. A lot of marketers are throwing a lot of money away.”

. . .

The 1985 Super Bowl saw the first “Million-Dollar Minute” in television, with ad rates for spots during the game rising ever since. Can the price keep going up? David Sable, global chief executive of the Young & Rubicam agency, says: “Everybody always asks [if there is a limit to the price of a Super Bowl ad], then they get more expensive. People [have woken] up to the fact that digital hasn’t killed television advertising. When it works together, it works really well.”

To justify the steep price tag, brands devote months to crafting campaigns. Today, there aren’t just Super Bowl ads; there are ads for Super Bowl ads. This year, for instance, about a dozen companies – including Coca-Cola, Tide, Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, as well as Taco Bell – have released online teasers.

Previously, marketers kept their ads under wraps, waiting until the game to reveal their commercials. This year several are releasing their spots online before the game: Anheuser-Busch, whose Budweiser and Bud Light ads often top polls, has already released ads. Others including M&M’s are keeping their spots secret. However, the rise of digital media and online voting polls has changed the picture for marketers seeking to get the biggest bang for their buck. Suzie Reider, who directs the Ad Blitz Super Bowl channel on YouTube, says: “Marketers are waking up to the fact that the online audience has eclipsed the TV audience for the Super Bowl. That it takes a campaign that weaves weeks and weeks of content into it. Just launching the spot on the day of the game is like going to see a movie that is a trilogy and not seeing the first two instalments.”

VW’s ‘Star Wars’ ad, 2011©Alamy

VW’s ‘Star Wars’ ad, 2011

One of the most influential recent Super Bowl ads was a 2011 campaign for VW Passat, which made its debut in the days leading up to the Super Bowl. A 60-second version of the Star Wars-themed spot was screened online, capturing pregame buzz and 14m online views. The attention continued after the Super Bowl, when the ad topped various online polls and generated a flurry of press attention. The $3m or so VW spent on buying airtime earned them, according to public relations agency Edelman, an estimated $100.9m in media coverage.

Mike Sheldon, chief executive of Deutsch LA, the agency behind the VW ad and this year’s Taco Bell campaign, says: “It used to be that you ran the spot and then started praying. That was all you had: creativity and prayer. Now you have a creative arms race and a carpet bomb of activity that surrounds these television commercials.”

Of course, advertisers can never be too sure which spots will capture the zeitgeist. “The formula for Super Bowl ads is an anti-formula,” says Lubars. “If you draft on what was done the year before, it automatically will be discarded by the public. That’s why computers don’t make these things. It is a human, creative thing.”

. . .

Taco Bell hadn’t planned on buying a Super Bowl ad campaign this year until it brought in Deutsch LA to help with a broader campaign called “Live Mas” (mas being Spanish for “more”). The brand’s 10m Facebook fans and 325,000 Twitter followers had started to share stories about how they were “living more” but, says Brian Niccol of Taco Bell, “the stories were not about skydiving or swimming with sharks,” but more down-to-earth events such as road trips or high school reunions. “We saw this and thought, ‘You know what? Our fans are looking for us to do some communication that goes beyond our product innovation to tell stories about the brand.”

Sheldon recalls how Deutsch LA came up with the Bernie Goldblatt idea, intended to appeal to millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000. “When you think about Taco Bell, people have these fond experiences of going out, having a great time and having Taco Bell as a part of that,” he says.

“We thought people needed to be reminded of that. But reflecting back what happens in the world is not always an interesting way to go. A common misconception is that to appeal to millennials you have to show millennials.”

Instead, the Twitter-happy, mobility scooter-riding Goldblatt character was born. And Taco Bell decided the spot was worth Super Bowl airtime. To determine its success, the brand says it is, among other metrics, monitoring comments on social media and sales at its restaurants. As for the ad itself, how sure is Sheldon that it will be a hit on game day? “That’s a dangerous question,” he replies. “I’ll tell you on February 4.”

Emily Steel is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent

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