Multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads: good TV, bad business?

Multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads can make for great TV and water cooler chat. But given the huge cost, ad experts say the only way they pay for themselves is if they go viral.

Analysts say the only way they pay off is if they go viral

CBC's Kim Brunhuber examines the value of running advertisements during the Super Bowl in a digital age 2:52

A week ago you could already find them on Youtube: packs of Dachshunds dressed as hotdogs gambolling across a meadow.

Or the motocross biker flying over a bowl of piranha bots while eating a chocolate bar. Or Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer in various states of undress. Then there is the puppy-monkey-baby hybrid that seems to have been created by Dr. Moreau rather than a soft drink company.

This year's Super Bowl commercials — about 50 of them — appear more absurd, and expensive, than ever before, as advertisers wrestle for your attention during the single-most watched event since the advent of television.

"Over time the Super Bowl has become the biggest advertising event in the country, and for that matter, in the world," says Gerry Tellis, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California.

Mountain Dew's puppymonkeybaby Super Bowl spot.It actually runs for 30 seconds. (CBC)

"And the reason is because the Super Bowl attracts such a big audience that advertisers can reach all of them in a mass market, which these days is becoming very, very rare due to media fragmentation. So this year, for example, the ads are selling for up to $5 million US for 30 seconds."

But are they worth it?

In most cases, no, says Ira Kalb, a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. He's been studying Super Bowl commercials for years.

"Do you think it's suits or do you think it's Photoshopped?" he asks me and chuckles as he watches the Dachshund hotdogs run towards people dressed as ketchup and mustard.

He appreciates the Heinz commercial as he would a short film, but he's not sure it'll sell more ketchup. Typically, he says, Super Bowl spots are entertaining for the audience and win awards for the ad agencies, but they probably do little for the brand.

"It's not worth it in most cases, because the data shows that 80 per cent of these Super Bowl commercials don't really work very well," Kalb says.

"People can't remember the brand, and they certainly don't buy the product. The producers are creating works of art, as opposed to commercials that will sell the product, or get the brand in peoples brain."

Broad brush 

For Kalb, that $5 million, 30-second buy could get you more than a year's worth of advertising on the New York Times Sports pages. Or more than 14 billion Facebook ads. That's one new ad every second. For about 500 years.

"And the thing is the people that are advertising on Facebook are getting a big bang for their buck because the ad appears in the news feed, and it's well targeted. So you can target the audience you really are looking to reach," he says. "Whereas when you're on the Super Bowl, it's a really broad-brush audience."

Gerry Tellis says the Super Bowl has become the biggest advertising event in the world.

Daniel Durbin, who runs USC's Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, also says you can't draw a straight line between a Super Bowl ad and the cash register.

"They don't necessarily directly lead to higher sales, but that's not really the point of it. The point of Super Bowl advertising is to be a Super Bowl advertiser, and have people recognize you as a big player on a big field," Durbin says.

And these days, $5 million buys you more than just 30 seconds on TV. If the spot catches on, it could find a whole new audience for weeks, maybe even months, online.

 "Initially it started with companies uploading their ads on YouTube the day after the event, in order to exploit the chatter on social media," Tellis says.

"But then companies realized that people were talking about ads even before the event, and if they were able to get attention before the event, then they could really top the rankings on the day of the event itself.

"So companies have started releasing their ads on YouTube, sometimes two weeks and even more before the event, and also leaking information about the ads, in order to start the buzz about the ads before the event and get the maximum bang during the event."

Ira Kalb appreciates the Heinz Super Bowl ad, but doubts it will sell more ketchup.

So every time you forward one of those "hilarious'Super Bowl ads" to your friends, keep in mind: it's part of the advertisers' multi-million-dollar plan.

They're counting on you to do much of their work for them.

"And that's a huge value for the sponsor, because it's not just a professional corporation like the NFL that's promoting your product, it's fans that are promoting your product," Durbin says. "And potential purchasers that are promoting your product to other potential purchasers."

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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