Why a Super Bowl Ad Is the Smartest Way to Waste $5 Million

The biggest blockbuster in pop culture doesn’t benefit most of its advertisers. So, what are they thinking?

Stephen Lam / Reuters

The Super Bowl is weird. Three hundred and sixty four days a year, Americans do not seek out advertising for emotional catharsis. But on one Sunday evening, they gather in reverent silence for a national christening of corporate iconography, to celebrate the birth of several 30-second brand promotions.

The Super Bowl is also enormous, a Kilimanjaro looming over the cultural landscape. The biggest cinematic blockbuster from 2016, Rogue One, sold about 55 million tickets. The 2017 Super Bowl’s audience will be at least 110 million viewers. In terms of cultural reach, football’s championship game is twice the size of the biggest blockbuster.

To advertise on such a massive platform costs a massive amount of money. This year, companies are coughing up $5 million (or more) for a 30-second spot.

Is that price tag absurd? Yes and no.

Yes, because for $5 million a company could pay 10 people $100,000 a year for five years of work. That seems better than 30 seconds of D-list celebrities selling snack food (and the celebrities don’t do it for free, either). No, because Super Bowl ads are simply a different species in the advertising kingdom. Companies are not just paying for a large audience. They are paying for silent focus: Tens of millions of people quietly watch Super Bowl commercials and actually talk about their favorite moments of corporate branding. They are also paying for exposure: Super Bowl ads are watched and re-watched—on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube, and on next-day rankings and analyses across the internet. On most days, readers click out of ads to read articles online. For one day, they read a lot of articles only to click on the ads.

But for the purposes of most companies, the Super Bowl is a paradox. It is an incomparable blockbuster for commercial exposure that is also a dud for most advertisers. And they know it.

Surveys of Super Bowl audiences have found that between 80 and 90 percent of the ads wash over audiences and don’t make them any more likely to buy the product on display. If one is skeptical of consumer surveys, as one should be, look at the academic papers. A 2013 study by Wesley R. Hartmann of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and Daniel Klapper of Humboldt University Berlin, "Do Superbowl Ads Affect Brand Share?," found that commercials by beer and soda companies in the big game had a "null and/or insignificant effect" on revenue. The researchers found no relationship between ads and growth in sales per viewing household. Companies were spending millions of dollars for nothing.

Well, not quite nothing. The Super Bowl might provide a small lift for an advertiser like Coca Cola if no other soda companies participated in the spectacle. But Coke is annually negated by a similarly snappy ad from Pepsi. So, for the largest companies in the most competitive markets, the Super Bowl is more like the Prisoner’s Dilemma Bowl. Coke and Pepsi face a choice: One of them can advertise and eke out a little bit of market share. Neither can advertise and they both keep millions of dollars. Or both can advertise and, since the market share won’t budge, wipe out tens of millions of dollars just to maintain the status quo. In this sense, the Super Bowl is a glorified corporate battlefield where glitzy marketing armies fight to a stalemate.

That leads to the second irony of the Super Bowl, which is that the game is most valuable to the companies that can least afford it. As a general rule, advertising works best on consumers with little information. (When selling a sham headache remedy, it’s easier to convince a rube than a good physician.) The lesson applies to the Super Bowl, too. New companies and products get the biggest bang for the buck in the Super Bowl, because millions of people are hearing about them for the first time.

Take movies, for example. Another study of 47 Super Bowl commercials in 2011 found large spikes in search traffic for several advertisers, especially films, like Captain America and Super 8. The surge in interest started less than 15 seconds after the end of the trailers, “roughly the time it takes to think and type “captain america” into a computer," the researchers wrote. (GoDaddy.com, too, saw an enormous spike after its raunchy ad that year.) Movies that advertise in the Super Bowl don’t just get a search surge. They actually sell more tickets. A 2016 paper that looked at 70 films between 2004 and 2014 found that movies advertising in the Super Bowl saw a $8.4 million bump in the opening weekend box office from a $3 million Super Bowl spot. Movies that advertise in the big game tend to have larger marketing budgets overall. But even controlling for this, the Super Bowl premium is clear.

The Super Bowl’s remarkable reach can also give a lift to lesser-known musicians. In 2012, a Chevy commercial included the song “We Are Young” by a relatively unknown New York-based band named Fun. A few weeks later, it was the number-one song in the country for more than a month. So it’s not just movie marketers that can use these extremely expensive ads to blast their art into marketplace; musicians can win the Super Bowl lottery, too.

Finally, Super Bowl ads send a gravitas signal. Few people outside the marketing industry can say offhand the cost of a full-page advertisement in The New York Times or on Yahoo’s homepage. But the multi-million-dollar price tag of a Super Bowl spot is splashed on headlines and shouted out at parties (“They spent $5 million on that?!”). This is another under-appreciated power of the Super Bowl ad, says Tom Goodwin, the head of innovation at the advertising consultancy Zenith Media. “Super Bowl ads do a great job of subconsciously expressing solidity and stature,” he told me in an email. That might be another reason why research has shown Super Bowl ads work better for new companies and products than established brands. Budweiser is already a cultural colossus. But an upstart digital company gets a nice lift from signaling that they're the next giant.

Perhaps the Super Bowl is best understood as the world’s most expensive debutante ball for new cultural products. On the one hand, the big soda, beer, and snack regulars spend millions each year in the hope that they can win about 24 hours of goodwill. But there’s not much evidence that those ads do much in the long run. Sunday evening’s blockbuster event matters most for the companies and products you’ve never heard of Sunday morning.