(written in February 2023, updated February 2024)
Advertising during the Super Bowl is a privilege for any advertising professional, not only because of the one hundred million people tuning in every year — making it the most watched program in the US — but also because of the incredible amount of resources it takes to buy a spot, develop an ad, and execute a campaign correctly.
Between 2018 and 2022, I’ve had the privilege of leading Paid Media for Anheuser Busch, the biggest in-game advertiser. Since this is the first year in a while I don’t have to worry about putting out fires and negotiating last-minute requests related to running 4-8 ads in the Super Bowl, I thought it would be fun sharing some of what I’ve learned.
Here are ten lesser-known things about Super Bowl advertising and some of my tips from experience.
Before we dive in, please know that my experience may be different from that of other advertisers, and things may change quickly over time. Feel free to share other fun facts and tips that I may have missed!
1. Super Bowl Advertising Defies (Most) Rules
The Super Bowl is a valuable advertising platform because of the incredible number of people tuning in. The rule-defying thing about the event is people pay more attention to the ads than the game itself (as shown by TVision). Even those who don’t care about the game may turn on their TV to watch the ads. The credit here goes to advertisers that, years ago, decided to make this event even more special by having a separate production and use the time to unveil incredible stories that make you laugh, cry, think, gasp, or scratch your head in confusion.
Another rule-defying element is talent. With the possible exception of A+ celebrities who are already booked for multiple spots, there’s high desire to be featured in a SB ad. This gives brands more leeway, pushing their talent for new things or roles outside their comfort zones. Landing a Super Bowl ad is a badge of honor and a milestone in their career.
Capitalizing on this rule-defying talent aspect is a bit of a balance for advertisers. Having a highly recognized global celebrity will make your commercial resonate, but there’s also the potential downside of having to share that celebrity with other companies running SB spots. Featuring smaller celebrities allows you to leverage the prestige of the Super Bowl to get more out of your deal than engagements for a regular commercial.
2. No One Really Pays The Same Rate. Established Advertisers are “Bad Money.”
When you read reports of the exorbitant asking prices for a Super Bowl ad, you may be tempted to believe that’s a fixed price, like the menu at a restaurant. In reality, almost no one pays the same price for an ad. The length of time an advertiser has been advertising in the Super Bowl with the network and the amount of investment with the network throughout the year play a factor in determining the price.
Established advertisers don’t necessarily negotiate on a unit price but on a rate of inflation over their historical price, which serves as a base. Established advertisers often have a lower price-per-unit than new advertisers, which is why they are sometimes considered in industry lingo “bad money” because they can purchase units at a lower rate than new advertisers.
So why would the network sell at a discount to established advertisers? Simply because the number of units bought in-game (or pre/post-game) may play a role in the price per unit you’ll ultimately pay. Larger, more established advertisers often buy more than one unit, and keeping them buying helps guarantee inventory sellout, in-year revenue (outside the Super Bowl), and multi-year relationships with big spenders.
As a matter of fact, in recent years, networks have started demanding a non-Super Bowl spending match for advertisers to secure a spot in the big game (normally during another sporting event broadcasted by the network). This is another reason advertising in the Super Bowl is so prohibitive: you need to commit to twice the spend in sports programming, and what you have to buy to match is often dictated (or heavily influenced) by the network.
3. Ad-Unit Position Is A High-Stake Strategic Choice. People Literally Bet On It.
Viewership by minute changes significantly, and the time your ad is aired may dramatically impact the number of people that view it. On top of the regular rules of pod position where generally spots at the opening and closing of an ad break (or “pod”) get more attention, as the chart below illustrates, it can fluctuate by more than ~20 million people from kick-off to the height of the game. Depending on when your ad runs, you may have a dramatically different reach.
Usually, more established advertisers that confirm their buys earlier get first-pick of the pod in which they appear. The position in the pod is also an element of price negotiation.
Companies need to be thoughtful about their choices. Here are some of the many considerations companies are making:
- Timing within the Game: If the game is close, the 4th quarter can have incredibly high ratings. If the game is a blowout, the 4th quarter is not desirable.
- Cohesive Storylines: If you are running multiple spots connected in storyline, you need to keep them closer (but not in the same ad-break).
- Competitor Separation: If competitors are also advertising in the game, the network needs to help you keep a separation.
The most interesting thing, in my opinion, is that people bet on everything when it comes to sports, particularly the Super Bowl. Because Anheuser Busch has been an (exclusive beer) advertiser for 33 years (up until last year), it often secured the first ad spot in the game (1A). This spot had a lower rating, but it had prestige. The place was often reserved for Anheuser Busch’s flagship brand, Budweiser.
When the company started switching things up (pod position and first ad from the company’s portfolio of brands), people started taking bets on which company would be in spot 1A. During my tenure at AB, an army of people would reach out to my team and me impersonating reporters or industry folks to try to gauge which brand would advertise first to get an edge on their betting. That’s one of the reasons why we kept the flighting schedule close to the vest (that and last-minute strategic changes).
4. Running a non-standard unit length may be difficult (and expensive)
The US has a somewhat unique approach to TV advertising pricing compared to other countries because a 30-second unit costs half of a 60-second and twice as much as a 15-second one. For this reason, advertisers often decide to run shorter units to save money, but the problem with this is that it creates “clutter” for viewers.
Although the ad break is the same length, running four 60-second ads makes the break feel shorter than running eight 30-second units.
The viewer experience influences tune-out, and networks need to manage the desire to monetize the programming with the desire to keep ratings high. The Super Bowl is one of the few programs purchased without an audience guarantee. ( This means advertisers and the network are not trading the unit buy on the number of people watching the program but just on the ability to advertise on the program.) However, in recent years, the broadcasting networks and the NFL have agreed to limit (or outright decline) the number of 15-second spots they allow in the game.
The limit on the shorter spots creates an issue for advertisers that may not be able to afford a 30-second spot (also because of the non-SB spend match discussed above). It is also troublesome for those who may want to run a 45-second spot (priced at 1.5x of a 30-second unit). Because the ad-break length is usually pre-determined to allow the game to proceed without forced interruption, the network may still be able to accommodate non-standard units by matching two advertisers running 45-second ads or shortening/extending the time of their “promo.”
One thing is for sure: if you want to run a non-standard unit length (not 30, 60, or 90 seconds), you may have to go through a lengthy negotiation that costs you extra money (in the form of additional required buys).
5. Viewer Location May Impact the Ads Seen
While the majority of the broadcast is nationally televised (including the ad breaks), networks reserve a couple of ad-breaks for their local affiliates. Usually, the ad breaks around the half-time show are local broadcasts, and advertisers can purchase a spot in one or more local metro areas. This allows them to have a more targeted message without having to pay the price for a national spot.
The unit economics don’t necessarily work in the advertiser’s favor if you decide to combine multiple local buys. For example, in the past few years, running a local spot in the top ~8-12 metros in the US (by population), was roughly equal in price to purchasing a national spot.
To add to the complexity, the in-stadium broadcast is usually managed by the NFL and is generally a different stream, especially during ad breaks (people in stadium don’t see ads unless they are in a suite). The camera usually focuses on the things of interest happening in the stadium or the many celebrities attending the big game.
6. A Cool Idea May Get You Some Invaluable Extra Air Time
Large advertisers get some “added value” units in game in the form of aerials and billboards (the 5 seconds bumpers ads at the end of an ad-break before the in-game broadcast starts again). Most of the time, these units follow very strict standardization rules so networks can manage a seamless transition back into the game.
At the same time, networks work incredibly hard to make the Super Bowl broadcast as entertaining and high quality as they can. Therefore, if you are a large advertiser with an A-list celebrity in your spot, you may get some extra air time and a custom activation if you are able to persuade your talent to do something cool on camera that may entertain the audience.
In the past, we have featured some of our sports and music celebrities, had fun cameos with the stars of our ad, or even wrapped a building with a 100ft/30m tall decals to provide a suggestive shot for the camera to show what’s going on around the stadium (pictures below).
In general, talent appreciates getting the extra visibility and will work with you to get something unique off the ground. The network production team may have some resistance to creative ideas because their priority is to keep the broadcast as simple and smooth as it can be (to avoid issues in the live broadcast). However, if the brand teams involve the network marketing team early on in the process and have them work closely with the network production team, they can be invaluable advocate for your idea and help you navigate the complexities of production and approval.
7. Despite Spending Millions Of Dollars For Your Spot, You May Still Be Denied To Run At The Last-Minute
Every ad that runs on TV (and particularly in the Super Bowl), needs to be reviewed by a department called Standards & Practices (S&P). This process is both good and bad for advertisers.
The positive is that the ads are scrutinized for compliance with the law. This avoids dangerous things like misinformation, false claims, or unfair competitive practices.
On the downside, though, it adds an extra hurdle for advertisers by introducing an external team with a very different point of view to sign off on your creatives.
This may become particularly inconvenient when a company is trying to do a collaboration with another company and shows two brands in the same spot. This is generally not allowed by the Standards and Practices department of most networks. First, they want to protect their revenue and avoid having multiple advertisers leverage one spot rather than buying multiple spots. Secondly, they want to reduce the sense of “clutter” we discussed before.
Obviously, very large advertisers have the chance to work with the networks to allow for exceptions. We did this in 2019 when Bud Light had a joint Super Bowl ad with HBO. The world of Game of Thrones and the Bud Knight had a cross-over to launch the new season of the show and introduce a new chapter in the saga of the iconic Bud Light mascot.
The best practice is always to work in advance with the network and the S&P department, being open to make quick last-minute edits, and eventually being able to “smooth the deal” by committing to an incremental buy with the network after the Super Bowl.
It may seem like large advertisers that have paid an exorbitant amount of money to advertise during the Super Bowl may have more leverage to run what they want, but in the grand scheme of things, the broadcasters are much more incentivized to protect the integrity of the multi-billion dollar production and advertising machine of the Super Bowl while also being careful not to create a “precedent” with other advertisers.
8. It’s All About the ‘Buzz’… But it’s Not
Because so much good content is aired on the same day, it’s going to be really hard for one specific ad to rise to the top and truly be noticed, no matter how good it is. An ad or campaign that would perform very well during regular programming has now to share attention with 70+ ads that are all above average.
To justify the production cost and give it a higher chance of getting noticed, brands have started to release their spot earlier and earlier the week before the Super Bowl to start amassing views and buzz. Moreover, any good campaign will have a very structured social buy associated with it to amplify and extend the reach of the ad before the actual game. This works for two reasons: it gives more time for the ad to get noticed and increases recall once people recognize it during the game.
Social buzz has become such a strong meter/proxy for creative success that the PR teams also work incredibly hard in the weeks leading to the Super Bowl to “seed” the ads in the many morning shows, publications, and contests to give it a higher chance to break through. Many ads and campaigns have a call to action, hashtag, and social element purposefully designed to get people to talk about it and spread the “virality” of it. That’s sometimes part of the creative agency brief itself!
Obviously there are going to be a few campaigns where the ad itself is so unexpected, brilliant, or confusing, that it becomes viral on its own (e.g. the Coinbaise QR code ad), but for the most part, every ad and campaign achieves incredible levels of talkability thanks to the proven formula of having one (or more) mega star doing something remarkable on screen and having a massive social and PR campaign to give it further reach.
Unfortunately, brands and executives sometimes become so obsessed with the social conversation around their ads that they forget that it is only a short-term proxy indicator that has nothing to do with their ability to drive a strong ROI from a very significant investment. For example, you may drive a huge amount of talkability because you have celebrity X do something ridiculous on screen, but if the audience doesn’t take away anything about your product or company from it, all that buzz may not translate into sales, and the CFO may not be thrilled to sign a similar check the following year.
Coinbase bouncing QR code at 2022 Super Bowl
9. You Can’t Call it Super Bowl
You may have wondered why many advertisers and companies talk about “the big game” rather than calling it Super Bowl. What may not be well known outside the industry is that only official NFL sponsors can use the term Super Bowl. Non-sponsors are left to find other ways to refer to the final game of the football season to call attention to the activations leading up to, during, and after the event. It’s interesting how much the IP is leveraged outside official channels. At some point, the NFL may try to get a bigger cut of the action, arguing that “the big game” has become synonymous with the Super Bowl and should also be protected. Others may instead say that once an event becomes so ingrained into popular culture, you must surrender the ability to capitalize on it fully. After all, becoming an NFL partner or advertising during the game is anything but cheap!
10. Super Bowl is a Catalyst: The Ad Is Only The Tip Of The Iceberg
Until last year, Anheuser Busch was the only remaining category exclusivity advertiser running anywhere between 4 and 7 minutes of SB advertising. The question I was asked most frequently when I was in my previous role was, “Is it worth the cost?”
This a very fair question considering the staggering amount of spend connected to the production of the ad, the cost of the spots, and the surrounding campaign elements before, during, and after the event. The truth is that when done right, the advertising during the game is just the tip of the iceberg. The “magic” truly came together when we all worked in coordination. Sponsorship, Experiential, Talent, Brand, and the best agencies in the business built something that leveraged multiple assets, properties, agreements, and IP to build unique campaigns and experiences that only Anheuser Busch, and no other company, could create in the way we did.
This months-long effort, made of exhilarating creative sessions, hard-core negotiations, intense meetings, last-minute adjustments, late-night brainstormings, and sleepless nights, ultimately served as a catalyst for the entire company. It galvanized the sales team and instilled faith in our wholesaler network. It launched new products and reaffirmed the role that our iconic brands had in culture. It raised the bar for the global marketing organization and industry as a whole. It energized the team and showed what we could do and what we were made of.
Although I cherish my time working on the biggest and most iconic Super Bowl campaigns in history, I’m very happy to sit back and watch the game with friends this year, probably enjoying more than anyone else in the room what the best marketers in the world will bring to life this weekend. For what it’s worth, I know for sure what team I’ll be rooting for this coming weekend: team Anheuser Busch.