Judgment Day: Super Bowl Advertising

This week, we take a look at the biggest day of the year for the advertising industry: The Super Bowl. The only sporting event where viewers pay as much attention to the commercials as they do the game. We'll analyze a tiny but ambitious brand that bet its entire marketing budget on one single Super Bowl commercial, a website that created a purposefully banned ad to generate free buzz and a company that created the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time one year, then aired another the next that was such a flop, they sent the ad agency packing. That's why they call it "Judgment Day" - because careers and accounts hang in the balance on Super Bowl Sunday.

This week, we take a look at the biggest day of the year for the advertising industry: The Super Bowl. The only sporting event where viewers pay as much attention to the commercials as they do the game.
We'll analyze a tiny but ambitious brand that bet its entire marketing budget on one single Super Bowl commercial, a website that created a purposefully banned ad to generate free buzz and a company that created the most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time one year, then aired another the next that was such a flop, they sent the ad agency packing.
That's why they call it "Judgment Day" - because careers and accounts hang in the balance on Super Bowl Sunday.

For the past few months, a small plant in Ada, Ohio, has prepared for this very special day.

The company is Wilson Sporting Goods.

(Image Source: houstonchronicle)

It is the only dedicated football factory in the world.

It all started one day back in 1941. The founder of the Chicago Bears stood up in an owners meeting and proposed that Wilson be the official football supplier to the NFL.

The vote carried.

That means for the last 76 years - every single play, every single point - has been made with a Wilson football.

On a typical day, the company makes 4,000 footballs. In a typical year, it manufactures over 700,000.

(Image Source: Jay LaPrete/EyePush Newsphotos)

The small 150-person factory controls 70% of the football market.

The plant's workers don't use high-tech equipment to make the footballs. Instead, they use sewing machines from the mid-1950s and the 16-stitch holes on each ball are laced by hand.

(Image Source: AP)

It takes three days to make a single football.

And while every day is football day at Wilson, the Super Bowl is the big day.

Each team will receive 108 Super Bowl footballs. Typically, 120 of those balls are used during the game.

That's an interesting stat. A Super Bowl game is 60 minutes long, divided up into four 15-minute quarters. But within a Super Bowl game, there is really only about 12 minutes of actual action.

You heard right. Only 12 full minutes are played between the time a ball is snapped and a play is completed or whistled down.

The rest of the 3-hour broadcast is made up of replays, the half-time show, players standing around waiting for the next play, the pre-show and post-show chit chat - and of course the 50 minutes of commercials.

With 120 footballs used in every Super Bowl game, it suggests a new ball is brought in for every play.

Which makes those footballs very valuable.

(Image Source: Getty Images)

Over 100 million pairs of eyes are locked onto Wilson's product on Super Bowl Sunday, and that's why it's Wilson's biggest day of the year.

The Super Bowl is also the biggest day of the year for the advertising industry.

All the big brands hit the field with their best advertising ideas.

There's a lot at stake - the Super Bowl is the most expensive single day ad purchase of the year - because the big game delivers the largest audience of the year.

(Image Source: USA TODAY Sports)

It's also the only day when viewers pay as much attention to the commercials as they do to the game.

Those commercials will be voted on, ranked, reviewed like television shows and analysed.

There's one thing for sure. NRG Stadium in Houston won't be the only place where there'll be touchdowns and fumbles on Sunday…

The very first Super Bowl game was played the same year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper – in the summer of love in 1967.

But the Super Bowl wasn't called the Super Bowl back then - it was called the World Championship.

Chiefs' Mike Garrett and Packers' Jim Grabowski during the first Super Bowl ever at the LA Memorial Coliseum. (Image Source: Art Rogers)

That championship was the result of a merger between the National Football League and the 8-year old American Football League.

The game was broadcast on both CBS and NBC – and get a load of this - neither network kept a copy. It is said both erased the tapes to record soap operas.

Tickets cost $6, $10 and $12, and thirty thousand seats went empty at the that day.

It would be the last Super Bowl not to sell out.

The big game didn't get its big name until 1969.

(Image Source: NYDailyNews)

According to Time magazine and the terrific book, The Super Bowl of Advertising by Bernice Kanner, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs was telling an NFL owners meeting about a "Super Ball" his daughter owned that bounced incredibly high – then he paused and blurted out "Super Bowl!"

The other owners weren't bowled over by the name, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle thought it was hokey.

(Image Source: SE)

But the name stuck.

It costs a lot of money to advertise in the Super Bowl.

In that first game back in '67, a 30-second ad was priced around $40,000.

This year, the price is $5 million - or about $166,000 per second.

That will rake in about $2 billion in sales for the Fox network.

There is always a lot of talk about whether spending $5 million for 30 seconds is worth it.

Well, it all depends how you look at it.

First, there's the size of the audience.

The most watched Super Bowl ever attracted over 114 million viewers.

(Image Source: statista)

Of the top 20 most-watched TV broadcasts in the history of television, can you guess how many were Super Bowl games?

Answer: 19

The only non-Super Bowl entry in the top 20 was the final episode of M*A*S*H which clocked in at #8 (at the time of this writing) with 106 million viewers.

(Image Source: metv)

The Super Bowl attracts the largest viewing audience of the year. And the one thing advertisers covet most of all is the opportunity to put their product in front of the largest audience possible.

This is also the one television event of the year where people don't run to the bathroom during commercial breaks.

In 2011, Neilsen found that 51% of people polled tuned in to watch the commercials more than the game itself.

Many advertising creative directors call the Super Bowl "Judgment Day" – because it's the one day of the year where a commercial lives or dies on the world's biggest stage and the pressure to create a memorable one is dialled up to eleven.

And when it comes to memorable Super Bowl commercials, there have been some incredible highs and some very amusing lows…

Believe it or not, there was a time when Super Bowl commercials were nothing special.

Advertisers just ran whatever commercials they had on hand. Nothing was done specifically for the big game.

That said, some interesting commercials still aired in the early days.

During Super Bowl 6 in 1972, this commercial aired:


That famous commercial wasn't created for the Super Bowl, as it began airing three months before – but when it did air on the big game, it found its greatest audience - helping it become one of the most famous commercials of all time.

Five years later, this Coke commercial aired in Super Bowl 14. It showed 6'4" 270 pound defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene limping down an arena tunnel on his way to the locker room, when a kid offers Greene his Coke:


That ad is considered one of the best Super Bowl commercials of all time – yet it wasn't created specifically for the Super Bowl either – as it began airing four months before the big game.

But all that would change during Super Bowl 18 in 1984…

Apple launched the Mac computer in a famous commercial titled '1984' in Super Bowl 18. We've mentioned this historic ad many times before. The title was borrowed from author George Orwell's dystopian novel predicting the tyranny of Big Brother.

The commercial didn't even show the Mac computer, yet it drove $4.5 million in Mac sales within six hours. 72,000 people bought one in the first 100 days – exceeding Apple's goals by 50%.

Apple's 1984 is often cited in my industry as the best commercial of all time – for its impact, for its storytelling, for its epic production values and for the way it launched Apple into the stratosphere. But 1984 is considered the best of all time for one other reason:

It marked the beginning of made-for-Super Bowl commercial extravaganzas.

Creating commercials explicitly for the Super Bowl now became a pressure-filled, anxiety-ridden task for advertising agencies and their clients.

But the results could make the pressure worth it.

In Super Bowl II, Xerox ran this commercial:


But before Xerox aired that commercial in the Super Bowl, it suddenly fretted the idea was blasphemous. So it showed the ad to the Archbishop of New York. He laughed and gave it his blessing.

The commercial was so popular and effective that Xerox aired the Monk campaign continuously for the next five years.

When Master Lock aired its now famous commercial during Super Bowl 8 in 1974, it showed a marksman firing a bullet through one of its padlocks:


Master Lock was a small advertiser, in Super Bowl terms. The big game is usually reserved for blue chip brands with the deepest pockets. But Master Lock was a small brand with big ambitions. The primary target wasn't consumers by the way – it was distributors. Master Lock wanted to remind hardware wholesalers that by building a brand, they could justify charging a premium for the locks.

Master Lock spent virtually its entire marketing budget on one Super Bowl ad every year for 21 straight years. And it ran that same bullet commercial for nine of those years. It paid off. Master Lock gained almost 70% market share and huge brand recognition.

Quick – name another lock maker.

In 1999, Monster.com found itself competing with Hot Jobs.com for supremacy in the online employment industry.

So the CEO of Monster bought two 30-second slots in Super Bowl 33 – even though his company didn't have any TV commercials and had never advertised on television before. But his advertising agency quickly came up with a powerful one:

Immediately, the number of resumes posted on Monster.com's site jumped from 1,500 a day to 8,500. The commercial generated over $3M in free press and the company was seen as the leader in the category.

But along with Super Bowl successes, there have been some advertising fumbles too…

When Holiday Inn wanted to advertise the fact that it was updating its hotels with a one billion dollar renovation, it ran an ad in Super Bowl 30:

The ad outraged a Southern Baptist group who protested its use of, quote: "perversity." Holiday Inn pulled the spot off the air 48 hours later.

Long before Snickers hit on its award-winning "You're not you when you're hungry" campaign, it ran a commercial on Super Bowl 41:

LGBT organizations called it homophobic. Parent company Mars suddenly found itself in the hot glare of the media. The commercial never ran again.

But one of the biggest Super Bowl disasters involved one of the most successful Super Bowl advertisers of all time…

After Apple aired its groundbreaking 1984 commercial, it prepared to wow the world again in the 1985 Super Bowl.

Apple was so confident, it ran full-page newspaper ads leading up to the Super Bowl that said: "If you go to the bathroom in the 4th quarter, you'll be sorry."


The commercial was aired on the Super Bowl broadcast and shown on the stadium screen during the game. When the ad ended, there were no cheers. Apple CEO John Sculley later said it must have been the only completely silent moment in Super Bowl history.

Where 1984 was upbeat, heroic and hopeful, Lemmings was dreary, insulting and depressing. The press hated it, consumers hated it and it ridiculed the very people it wanted to reach.

Not long after, Apple would close down half a dozen factories, Chiat/Day would be fired, and Steve Jobs would be gone.

Groundbreaking one year. Booed the next. That's how tricky Super Bowl commercials can be.

While some Super Bowl commercials are failures, some are just plain strange.

Take Ed McMahon and MC Hammer shilling for a website called Cash4Gold.com.

Usually the Super Bowl is reserved for the biggest brands. But the punishing 2009 recession opened the door to some unusual pitches:

MC Hammer said he was trading in his gold records for cash, and McMahon said he was trading in his gold hip replacement.

Another strange commercial aired in Super Bowl 47:


With what Time magazine called "…some of the most unsettling wet sound effects this side of a Walking Dead zombie killing."

The message: When sexy meets smart your small business scores. The ad came in dead last in the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter. Yet GoDaddy said the following Monday was the biggest sales day in its history.

Some interesting end-runs have been made around the official Super Bowl broadcast.

A search engine called Subjex.com once announced a contest asking Super Bowl ticket holders to hold up signs containing its website address at the game when cameras panned the crowd – and Subjex.com would pay people $1K for every second the sign was on screen.

(Image Source: YouTube)

NFL lawyers slapped a cease & desist order on the website, and the contest was scrapped. But Subjex.com said that the resulting controversy generated more publicity than the contest ever would have.

Companies like Ashley Madison and PornHub created Super Bowl commercials that the NFL banned. The bans got those companies more attention than if they had paid the $4M price tag.

Which was the strategy all along.

One of the most interesting end-runs was done by Frito Lay during Super Bowl 26 in 1992.

It didn't advertise in the big game, but advertised heavily before the Super Bowl telling viewers to tune into a special live edition of the popular show In Living Color it was sponsoring on the Fox network during the half-time break.


Twenty-two million viewers jumped channels. At that time, half-time Super Bowl shows were boring – consisting mostly of marching bands and high school drill teams. But that ambush by Frito Lay had a lasting effect on Super Bowls.

The very next year, the NFL beefed up its half-time show. As a matter of fact, Frito Lay sponsored the Super Bowl 27 half-time. But instead of a marching band, the musical guest was Michael Jackson.


Half-time shows would never be the same again.

Often, what the ad industry thinks is the best Super Bowl commercial differs greatly from what viewers think.

According to the USA Today Ad Meter poll of TV viewers, the best commercial from last year's Super Bowl 50 was for Hyundai.


But according to the advertising press, the best commercial of Super Bowl 50 was the one celebrating the 75th anniversary of Jeep. Saying it was the only meaningful message in the circus that is the Super Bowl:


Whatever your opinion, the Super Bowl is serious business for the advertising industry. And if you're still wondering how serious it is, this may help you understand.

When Super Bowl Sunday is finally over, the Anheuser-Busch advertising team meets on Monday morning to start planning their commercials for next year's Super Bowl.

Which is only 364 days away.

It's the biggest one-day sale in advertising.

Over 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl.

1.5 million of them will call in sick on Monday.

And all of them will have an opinion on which commercials were good and which ones sucked.

The pressure to create a memorable Super Bowl commercial probably shaves a few years off the life of an advertising creative director. It's a huge gamble on the biggest stage.

And many ad agencies have been fired the day after Super Bowl Sunday.

They don't call it Judgment Day for nothing.

Then there's that ever-present gremlin in the machinery. The elusive X factor. The GoDaddy commercial was voted least liked by consumers – yet it produced a record amount of sales for GoDaddy the next day. How do you judge an effective commercial on Super Bowl Sunday – if the ad is voted best of the game but does modest business, or is voted the worst and does great business?

Is it short-term gain? Or long-term loss?

And why the gulf between what the advertising industry thinks is the best Super Bowl ad and what consumers think?

It's a conundrum - yet the cost of a Super Bowl commercial has increased 75% over the last decade. And it's estimated that the cost of a $5M Super Bowl commercial could double by the year 2025.

An astounding figure.

It guess you could say it would be first and ten…

…when you're under the influence.