05 Feb 2014

The Super Bowl Revisited


As the Seattle Seahawks turned Sunday’s Super Bowl into a rout, the only thing left in doubt for many viewers was the impact of the array of $4 million ads from companies hoping to get their money’s worth and make a big score with US television’s largest audience. Two Harvard Business School marketing professors offer their thoughts on the game within the big game. Assistant professor Thales Teixeira reveals that the TV screen no longer has the undivided attention of a large percentage of viewers, while professor emeritus Stephen Greyser provides his commentary on the advertising action.

While the Super Bowl on the field was far from competitive, the Super Bowl commercials on the tube remained a hard-fought contest for attracting and engaging attention and interest from over 111 million viewers – a US record for a single event.

The Super Bowl is the one and only place where advertisers can reach so many viewers who want to watch the commercials in real time. Beyond that, some viewers follow the pre-game commercial buzz, participate in social media conversations, and pay an early visit to advertiser websites.

What’s New? What’s Not?

Perhaps the most significant innovation on Sunday was on behalf of retailer H&M, which showcased David Beckham’s line of men’s underwear. The attention-getting ad, with the superstar soccer player shirtless, featured technology that allowed viewers with Samsung TVs to buy the product remotely.

An ever-growing trend is the early release of many commercials to promote consumer interest, as indicated by tens of millions of downloads on YouTube. Although releasing ads early is nothing new, some Super Bowl advertising is now treated like a “sponsored property” that can be leveraged not only before but after the game to enhance the brand -- with pre and post-game “extenders” via social media serving as a stimulus to consumers and trade outlets and a source of pride for employees. The downside risk: advance viewing may lead to criticism – not really what advertisers want on social media.

Corporate messages, typically supported by commercials with high production values, were also more frequent this year. To wit:

Microsoft’s “What is Technology?” message on “the power to unite us” successfully linked that theme to Microsoft’s identity as a power in high technnology. Anheuser-Busch’s popular and continuing tale of the Clydesdales embodied its usual human interest approach via animal interest (puppy and horse).

Chrysler and WeatherTech each offered corporate messages highlighting the theme of “made in the USA.” The iconic Bob Dylan starred in the Chrysler “America’s import” story, while WeatherTech, whose floor mat ads are usually a staple of late-night TV, also focused on the importance of American manufacturing.

A different kind of corporate message came from Bank of America. Teaming with Bono and his (RED) anti-Aids campaign, the 60-second performance-based, cause-oriented message promoted a free download of a U2 song, supported by B of A’s $1 per download contribution. So far, the campaign has raised more than $3 million.

Continuing Challenges

Gaining attention, interest, and engagement on a very big stage is a significant task for advertisers and agencies. Some Super Bowl XLVIII examples include differentiation and new approaches to enduring themes.

The most crowded product category, as is often the case, was automobiles. What do advertisers in such situations need to do? Differentiate the message (what’s newer, better about the brand) and/or differentiate the presentation (attention-getting personalities, high production values). Volkswagen stood out in this category with its “angel’s wings” for VW engineers -- a highly visual, attention-getting story emphasizing the underlying brand differentiation of its engineering excellence (VW has more cars on the road with 100,000 miles or more than any other brand).

Linking American values to America’s biggest event is a continuing theme and creative challenge. Budweiser’s “Hero’s Welcome” featured home-town values by depicting the return of a local soldier. Coca-Cola strummed a similar heartstring in its “America the Beautiful” ad with a diverse group of multilingual singers.

Post-game Activity

Finally, kudos to e-surance, the first advertiser to promote its services after the game. The ad touted the fact that its commercial cost a mere $1.5 million -- a big saving compared to the rest of the competition and as such, cleverly in keeping with the brand’s positioning as a low-cost alternative.

Even with the game on the gridiron out of hand, viewers hung around in record numbers. The plays on the field may have offered little incentive for water cooler conversations the next day, but the advertisements continued to drive people to argue about winners and losers.

When most people sat down to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, the television wasn’t the only screen they were looking at. Increasingly, viewers are doubling up on entertainment with a second media device in their hand or on their lap to complement—and compete—with the television. In 2012, Nielsen found that close to 40 percent of smartphone and tablet users multitask in front of the TV daily. According to Harvard Business School marketing professor Thales Teixeira, “That figure is probably outdated. Nowadays you can imagine a much higher number. That trend worries Super Bowl advertisers, who, says Teixeira, “are paying based on the audience watching a program. If people stop paying attention en masse, they are not getting everyone they are paying for.”

But advertisers fretting about the multitasking trend may be missing an opportunity, he adds. “A second screen can be a competitor, but it can also be a collaborator,” Teixeira explains. After all, if consumers already have their smartphones or laptops in hand, it only takes a few clicks to visit an advertiser’s website and buy a product they see advertised on television.”

For the rest of this article, which appeared in HBS Working Knowledge (Jan. 29, 2014), please click here.

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