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Feb 11, 2022 2022-02 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

What explains the continuing appeal of Super Bowl advertisements?

NBC, the network broadcasting Super Bowl LVI, has sold every in-game time slot for advertisements, including multiple spots for a record-high $7 million per 30 seconds. Does this signal a return to pre-COVID levels of spending for brands? Maria A. Rodas, a professor of business administration at Gies College of Business and an expert in consumer behavior and brand management, spoke with the University of Illinois News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about the enduring popularity of Super Bowl advertisements.

Why are Super Bowl ads so popular?
What makes the Super Bowl so appealing for advertisers is that it has the largest live television audience and is one of the few remaining TV events where people aren’t skipping the ads. This gives advertisers a large captive audience, which is becoming rarer and rarer, as people are scattered across a number of streaming services, many of which allow viewers to skip the ads. This also offers advertisers the opportunity to do more storytelling in their ads, given that they are not constrained by shorter ad formats or fleeting viewer attention. Being able to tell a story, especially an entertaining one, can help brands form stronger emotional bonds with consumers.

Several brands are making the most out of this opportunity by buying 60-second ads. One of them is GM, which features Dr. Evil, the villain in the Austin Powers movies, as a climate change hero who wants to save the world to then take it over. Other brands use this opportunity to provide important information on their offerings. For example, FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange platform, bought time during the Super Bowl to educate consumers on cryptocurrency as a way of assuring them that it’s a safe investment that’s accessible to everyone.

For advertisers, does this signal a return to pre-COVID levels of spending?
To a certain extent it does, but once you look at the list of advertisers, you’ll notice that there are many first-time advertisers, such as and Planet Fitness. For newer companies such as, the Super Bowl provides a great opportunity to quickly build awareness with consumers, and they invested a lot of money ensuring they would make a splash by buying a 60-second spot featuring the actor Matt Damon. Other newcomers are advertisers from categories that have been struggling during the pandemic and have started to rebound, such as automobiles and the leisure industry.

For example, as consumers and companies are planning more vacations and business travel, and Expedia announced that they each bought spots, signaling that they are battling for market share as the travel category rebounds from pandemic lows.

Have Super Bowl ads become a cultural experience or genre unto themselves? Are the ads as important – or more important – than the game itself?
According to a survey conducted by Forbes last year, about a quarter of the Super Bowl audience thinks that the ads are the most important aspect of the event. So I would say that, to a certain extent, the ads themselves have become a cultural experience. This is likely driven by the fact that the game has become such a big social event, meaning you’re likely to have many people want to join in on the fun even if they aren’t sports fans. For those viewers, the ads provide entertainment and a common ground with sports fans that doesn’t require knowledge of the game. Plus, consumers expect Super Bowl ads to be funnier and more entertaining than regular ads, given the high stakes for advertisers. Because of this, Super Bowl ads have become part of our popular culture, which in turns creates more of a desire for people to watch the ads.

How effective are Super Bowl ads when they’re released on the internet prior to the game?
This is a big trend with Super Bowl ads. When done right, I believe that it can be a very effective strategy, because it generates buzz. Advertisers are trying to get the most out of their investment, so they find ways to amplify the effect of the 30- or 60-second spot.

This is a trend that started with in 2008. Their ads were so over-the-top that the network rejected several versions, and the company created a whole campaign about this to get people talking about them.

For most advertisers, a Super Bowl ad is just one component of a bigger campaign. So, before the game they might release the full ad to generate buzz, and that’s why many of the ads tend to be extravagant and over-the-top. However, releasing the ad is not the only way to generate buzz. Pepsi and Frito-Lay started a campaign a month ago called “Road to Super Bowl LVI.” Other companies just release teasers or information on the ads to build anticipation, while many brands run parallel social media campaigns.

Super Bowl ads have evolved in their sophistication over the years, almost to the point where some are like mini-movies complete with Hollywood stars, budgets and production values. At what point does it become too much? Or is there no such thing as “too much” for a Super Bowl ad?
Because advertisers are relying on generating buzz from their Super Bowl ads to make the most out of their investment, having this sophistication is one way to achieve it. For this reason, the Super Bowl has become the advertising event of the year and most advertisers go all out. While this tends to work, if viewers perceive that the brand is trying “too hard,” it might come across as inauthentic, which consumers, especially younger ones, detest.

Reaching this level of sophistication is not the only way to create buzz. Last year, Oatly aired a spot that cost them virtually nothing to produce featuring their CEO singing a terrible song in the middle of a field. Because of the big contrast and because many people described it as one of the worst ads of the game, it was one of the brands that generated the most word-of-mouth.