Super Bowl Commercials: Why Madison Avenue Is Late To This Year’s Game

Analysis: After establishing new strategy to hitch on to power of social media, advertisers seem to be quickly reversing themselves

Super Bowl 50 Logo
Courtesy of CBS

Super Bowl 50 will no doubt kick off on time, but another game that has regularly taken place in the weeks before the big event has started late.

In 2011, Volkswagen reversed years of Super Bowl advertising strategy by deciding to make a clever commercial slated to appear in the Super Bowl available on YouTube the week before the game. The spot featured a young boy marching around as Darth Vader to the strains of “The Imperial March” from “Star Wars,” and its early appearance put a hot spotlight on the effects social media can have on the national conversation, winning new notice for both the automaker and its ad agency at the time, Deutsch.

Since that moment, Super Bowl marketers have launched promotional salvos earlier and earlier. In 2013, Jaguar unleashed a “teaser” commercial that highlighted the themes it would present in Super Bowl XLVIII. Web-services company GoDaddy started calling attention to its commercial for last year’s contest in early December of the previous year. Lexus pulled up the curtain on its ad for Super Bowl XLIX on NBC in mid-January, with many days to go before kickoff on NBC. In the days before the 2012 event, viewers could feast on extra-long versions of an Acura ad featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, not to mention a revival of the 1986 movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “ complete with actor Matthew Broderick, all from Honda.

In 2016, Madison Avenue is playing a waiting game. Of all the marketers, only Pokemon has unveiled its full commercial and only did so on Monday, just two weeks before CBS broadcasts Super Bowl 50. After jumping quickly on the idea that pre-game YouTube streams and Twitter pass-along helped maximize the investment of millions of dollars in Super Bowl commercials, are marketers quickly shifting tactics?

“Reveals are a double-edged sword,” said Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “They create buzz and shareability ahead of the game, but they can make the ad running on the actual game itself very anticlimactic. In other words, companies may get more buzz in total from dropping a bomb in the big game than by showing it earlier.”

Indeed, a sense emerged in recent years that viewers had seen many of the ads – not to mention their surprise guest stars and oddball punchlines – well before the giant happening they once helped boost. That takes some of the air out of the phenomenon.

The reason for the early maneuvers was clear: Super Bowl ads have increased in price exponentially over the past decade. The average cost for a 30-second advertisement in the pigskin classic has increased 76% during the past decade, and reached $4.4 million in 2015, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Add in fees for producing the commercial itself – a big-name director, a pact with a celebrity of the moment, special effects – not to mention ancillary activities like promotions in store aisles and getting employees excited, and the numbers quickly skyrocket.

Posting the ads ahead of time was thought to be a remedy for all the money flying out of the corporate coffers. Early exposure, so the theory went, would get more consumers involved in the commercial, and whet their appetites for the main appearance on Game Day. Chief marketing officers could whip up data reports about how many posts, likes and tweets the commercials generated and use that along with the TV ratings for the game itself to please corporate chiefs. And chatter attached to the early peeks reassured advertisers who understood all too well that the buzz for their pricey entreaties quickly dissipated within 24 to 48 hours of the Super Bowl post-game show.

To be sure, members of the Super Bowl ad roster are still trying to capture attention in the days before the game. They are just doing it a little differently. “Teasers” have begun to sprout, with companies like Anheuser Busch InBev Kia Motors trotting out everyone from Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer to Christopher Walken to draw consumers’ gaze in the days before the event.

“Advertisers are hoping that the suspense, entertainment value of the ad, and post-game publicity will more than compensate for loss of any pre-game publicity,” said David Stewart, professor of marketing and law at Loyola Marymount Univeristy’s College of Business Administration. It will be interesting to see if they are correct.”