Super Bowl Ads Are Still Super Cheap: $4 Million for 30 Seconds Is a Bargain


Advertising is so ubiquitous that much of it is worth nothing. But for one night, crowded rooms huddle together, shushed before a TV, to watch and discuss ads. That's truly scarce. And nearly priceless.

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 6.32.13 PM.pngInflation adjusted Super Bowl ad prices via Brent Cox, The Awl

The typical conversation about Super Bowl ads and their sticker-price begins with a statistic and ends with tremendous skepticism. "$4 million for no more than half a minute of TV time, are you kidding me?" And then every year, companies make it clear that they are not kidding you, by buying every last spot many weeks before the big game, at a higher price, over and over again.*

It's been well documented that Super Bowl ads are quantitatively different from normal TV ads. And every other form of advertising you see in magazines, on billboards, or on your computer. In fact, here's a graph of digital ad prices, in dollars, versus the price of a single Super Bowl spot (data via Digiday):

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 10.51.46 AM.png

And here's a graph of Super Bowl ad spots compared to the 30-second ad rates of the most-watched and most-notable shows on television:


The quantitative argument for Super Bowl ads being reasonably priced would proceed with some simple math. More than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl. Compare that to 20 million people, on average, watching Sunday Night Football in 2012; or 12 million watching The X-Factor; or 4 million watching 30 Rock. On a per-person, per-30-second basis, those numbers suggest that a Super Bowl viewer is worth twice as much as somebody watching The X-Factor or 30 Rock (which can be DVR'd, so the ads can be skipped) -- or 33 percent more valuable than somebody watching a Sunday Night Football game.

But the quantitative approach isn't sufficient to reveal the true value of Super Bowl advertising, because Super Bowl ads are qualitatively different from practically every other advertising event on your computer screen or television screen. To understand why, go back to the first sentence of this article: "The typical conversation about Super Bowl ads..." Stop right there. Appreciate how amazing it is that you didn't flinch when you read that phrase.

Despite marketers' best intentions, the fundamental relationship between consumers and ads is the act of ignoring. But people actually talk about Super Bowl ads, on purpose. They discuss them, analyze them, rank them. The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post ... sites that hardly mention Madison Avenue 364 days of the year suddenly transform, for one morning, into Ad Week and give drooling close-up coverage to Super Bowl ads.

When else do advertisements get their own advertisements?

Measuring the effectiveness of advertising is devilishly difficult, because it's practically impossible to pin-point the moment that millions of very different people made up their mind to buy something. It's easier to measure attention. And the attention bestowed on Super Bowl ads -- their art, their message, their brand-y-ness -- is qualitatively different from every other standard ad spot. By designating the Super Bowl as the Super Bowl of advertising, Madison Avenue has created something utterly unique: A national media event where people beg the room to quiet down so they can hear branded messages brought to them by multinational corporations.

At $4 million, that's not a rip-off. It's a steal.


*While the average price for an ad fell in the $3.8 million range, CBS CEO Les Moonves said many spots sold for more than $4 million ... and that he was willing to accept as much as $6 million for late-entries.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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