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Super Bowl ad strategies

Companies adopt unusual strategies for Super Bowl LI commercials

The Super Bowl isn’t the most watched sporting event of the season by accident.

Each year the game draws the reliable smattering of NFL fanatics who want to watch the two best teams play. But you also have those viewers who are there for the commercials, and that’s how CBS was able to draw an audience of 111 million for last year’s Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.

John Antil, associate professor of marketing in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, says the folks in the latter group might end up feeling disappointed on Sunday. “Some of the ads we normally count on to be hits are gone,” he says. “Others have adopted what appear to be rather strange strategies.”

As of last week, AdAge – the leading global source of news, intelligence and conversation for marketing and media communities – had published only 25 companies who plan to be in the game. In the past, that number would normally have been much higher with just over a week left before the big game (the final tally is normally about 50 companies/brands), Antil says.

Antil says another indicator that things may have changed comes from iSpotTV, which collects massive amounts of data on almost every TV ad. For 2016, iSpotTV reported Super Bowl ads received just over 297 million earned views, while for 2015 the number was nearly 382 million (a 22 percent decline).

But the commercial offerings during Super Bowl LI won't be a complete goose egg, Antil says.

One interesting new entrant is building material and supply company 84 Lumber, which is looking to break new ground. As a business-to-business operation, a company like 84 Lumber would typically skip the Super Bowl since its target audience is small relative to the audience it would reach, Antil says. This year, however, 84 Lumber is taking a new tack, airing an ad to help recruit 400 new employees with the primary message related to 84 Lumber being a great place to work.

“For what would seem to be obvious reasons, no company has ever used this expensive time to recruit new employees,” Antil says.

Snickers’ parent company, Mars Brands, is planning what it’s calling the “first live Super Bowl ad,” Antil says. The company plans to shoot the 30-second spot for Snickers in real time during a break in the action with its “You’re not you when you are hungry” theme as the backdrop.

In past Super Bowls, the ad campaign has featured celebrities playing roles that are not like you and then after eating a Snickers they turn back into their “real selves.” Stars have included William Dafoe (as Marilyn Monroe), Danny Trejo (who transformed back into Marcia Brady) and one of the most popular restarted the career of Betty White – that is powerful advertising.

Mars is playing up the spot with considerable online activity and has shown some rather strange samples using this year’s celebrity, Adam Driver, in a Western-themed ad that at least thus far actually makes no sense at all.

Though Mars is highly touting this ad as the first live Super Bowl ever, that is not exactly true. In a very risky live ad that ran in 1981, Schlitz did a live taste test comparison between Schlitz and 100 loyal Michelob drinkers.

Intel also promises something to look forward to during the game, Antil says, with new technology that will be used for the first time during the game. Using 38 cameras installed around the stadium, one can see replays from a 360-degree view and makes it seem as if the viewer is on the field. Intel has an ad with Tom Brady getting ready in the morning and even makes watching him brushing his teeth seem interesting.

“This is a well-done ad to show what the technology can do and there is even some well-done humor,” Antil says.

There are some trends to watch out for, Antil says. The Super Bowl has always been viewed as a male dominated broadcast and this is obvious from the ads that have been placed over the years. Very few ads were ever directed at or even indirectly toward women. But this year there seems to be more of a switch in that strategy. Three household products have ads more directed to women – Mr. Clean, Febreze, and Persil ProClean (laundry detergent).

The switch makes sense. Roughly 46 percent of the viewers are female, and according to the annual study done by the Advertising Research Foundation, more women consider the commercials the most important part of the game – 20.6 percent – compared to 14.7 percent among men.

For comparison’s sake, the total number of viewers of the Academy Awards was 34.3 million in 2016 and the cost of a 30-second spot was reported as $2.15 million, Antil says. For the Super Bowl, the number of women watching the Super Bowl in 2016 was about 51 million (using a low estimate of total viewers) but a more accurate estimate would be about 69 million.

“So, this can be easily seen as a lost opportunity to reach by far the largest female viewership of any broadcast or any event,” Antil says.

Heading into the game, there are more unknowns than usual, which adds to the overall sense of a possible letdown, Antil says.

 “On a purely subjective basis, it seems that thus far there has been less hype in the media,” he says. “On the other hand, maybe we will see some new strategies play out that fly in the face of traditional ‘Super Bowl ad wisdom.’”

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