Judgment Day: The high stakes gamble of Super Bowl commercials

Forget the game on the field, when the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles hook up this weekend in Super Bowl LII, the most cutthroat competition could be during the commercial breaks.

A good ad can add millions in sales but a bad one can actually knock a company out of business

Advertising executive Heather Chambers and her Canadian team have had ads in each of the past three Super Bowls. Their work has won numerous awards. (CBC)

Forget the game on the field, when the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles hook up this weekend in Super Bowl LII, the most cutthroat competition could be during the commercial breaks.

Companies are paying upwards of $5 million per 30-second commercial to pitch their product in front of roughly 110 million people. 

The potential rewards are extraordinary, but so are the risks. A poorly received Super Bowl spot can badly damage a company's brand, or even help knock a company out of business altogether. 

In the advertising industry it's known as Judgment Day.

"It's one of those things, as soon as you get it and you know you're going to be working on something for Super Bowl, you kinda think, 'Ah, geez,'" said Heather Chambers, vice-president of creative at Leo Burnett Toronto.

Chambers knows the pressure well. Her Canadian team has had ads in each of the past three Super Bowls, two of which were huge hits.

The Always "Like A Girl" spot from 2015 went viral and won an Emmy for outstanding commercial. 

The team had another success last year with Mr Clean's "Cleaner of your dreams." It was the top-ranked commercial in last year's game, according to the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review

For pure power and reach in advertising, there's really nothing else like the Super Bowl. While conventional TV audiences are shrinking, Super Bowl ratings are rock solid, with an average global viewership consistently over 100 million. 

And unlike with regular programming, where most people try to avoid the ads, research shows about one quarter of the Super Bowl audience actually tunes in specifically for the commercials. That means the ads alone have almost as many viewers as the Oscars.

It's why Super Bowl ad rates have more than doubled over the last decade. 

With so many eyeballs and so little time to grab their attention, and so much money invested, the stakes are sky high. 

Prof. Tim Calkins and his students at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management have been tracking and ranking Super Bowl commercials in real time for the past 14 years. (CBC)

"In the world of marketing it's just the biggest, most important, most high-pressure event of the year," said Tim Calkins, professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois.

Calkins has been studying Super Bowl ads for nearly 20 years. 

For the past 14 years, he and his students have been tracking and ranking the commercials based on specific criteria in real time, as they air during the game.

It's more than just an academic exercise. The results are published and followed closely by the advertising industry.

A successful Super Bowl commercial can be an instant boost to a company's bottom line.

Volkswagen says traffic on its website soared 127 per cent in the moments following the airing of "The Force" in 2011. The company says the ad, which featured a pint-sized Darth Vader starting a Passat with Jedi powers (and the help of his father and his remote starter), helped boost sales by 21,000 cars.

While success can translate into big sales, mistakes are magnified during the Super Bowl broadcast and there have been some memorable missteps.

Go Daddy's "Lost Puppy" ad from 2015 poked fun at Budweiser's use of cute animals in its campaigns. But when the ad was leaked prior to the game the company was inundated with complaints from outraged animal lovers. Go Daddy quickly apologized, pulled the spot, wrote off the production costs and ran an old commercial in its place.

Just For Feet's 1999 commercial featuring a group of white hunters tracking and drugging a Kenyan runner was slammed as racist. It led to a $10-million lawsuit. The company eventually entered bankruptcy proceedings and went out of business in 2004.

Groupon's Timothy Hutton Tibet ad from 2011 sparked outrage online. Groupon was trying to suggest saving money means you can give more to charity. The company had even set up a link on its website for people to donate to a Tibet-related charity. But the message missed the mark and Groupon was heavily criticized for mocking a human rights crisis. 

That was Groupon's first Super Bowl ad. It fired its agency and is only now returning to the game seven years later.

Jon Wild, Groupon's vice-president of marketing, says humour is important in Super Bowl ads, but it has to be carefully considered. (CBC)

"In 2011, we had a rather inauspicious ad. There were things in it that weren't so well-received and we've learned from that. We've matured as a business." said Jon Wild, Groupon's vice-president of marketing.  

"I think humour is incredibly important at Super Bowl. You have to stand out. You have a lot of companies spending a lot of money.  But you need to be ... thoughtful."

That task now falls on a new agency, Chicago's O'Keefe, Reinhard and Paul. They have some big-name clients like Turtle Wax and Taco Bell, but this is the five-year-old agency's first shot at the Super Bowl.

Matt Reinhard, OKRP's chief creative officer, says the agency's new Super Bowl commercial for Groupon features Tiffany Haddish, a breakout star from the 2017 movie Girls Trip. (CBC)

"There's definitely a lot of pressure," said Matt Reinhard, OKRP's chief creative officer.

"It's a great opportunity and it's a very big deal for us as far as we are a relatively young company."

OKRP's new Super Bowl commercial for Groupon features Tiffany Haddish, a breakout star from the 2017 movie Girls Trip, who was a Groupon booster long before she was paid to be its spokesperson.

The new marketing strategy talks about saving money but also focuses on the idea that a big company like Groupon can help small businesses by bringing them customers.

There is no poking fun at a marginalized cultural group this time around. It's a safer brand of humour. 

"We think with a little bit of physical comedy we are trying to ensure that we have the kind of Super Bowl moment that people will be talking about the next day at work," Reinhard said.

In this high stakes game, that's a lot hanging on a low-blow joke.

And they won't truly know if it's a hit until Judgment Day.

About the Author

Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Reporter for Consumer Affairs. Tips/Story ideas always welcome. aaron.saltzman@cbc.ca twitter.com/cbcsaltzman

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