Marketing professor discusses rise of Super Bowl ads

On Feb. 2, roughly 100 million Americans will tune in as the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos compete in Super Bowl XLVIII, and a considerable portion of the audience will be just as interested in the commercials as they are in the game.

Super Bowl advertisements have become a national pastime unto themselves, and Associate Professor of Marketing Bruce Robertson says that trend can be traced to two concurrent developments in the late 1970s: the availability of cable television and the National Football League's rise to prominence.

Photo of Associate Professor of Marketing Bruce Robertson

Associate Professor of Marketing Bruce Robertson

Before the advent of cable, Robertson said, advertisers could reach the entire United States at once by buying ads at the same time across all three major broadcast networks. But, he added, "As cable came in, people had more outlets for getting entertainment, it was no longer possible to reach all of America at the same time. The Super Bowl emerged as the one time almost all of America was watching."

Though Robertson says the popularity of the Super Bowl may be peaking thanks to the growth of soccer and the now biennial Olympics, the marketing power of football's championship game is clear. Companies will generally spend about 10 percent of their annual marketing budget on the Super Bowl because its massive viewership makes even the $4 million-per-30-second price tag -- plus millions more to produce the ad -- worthwhile. An effective Super Bowl commercial can resonate far beyond the initial broadcast, particularly on the Internet and in social media.

The tipping point, Robertson said, came in 1984 with Apple Computer's famous "1984" commercial.

"That ad only ran once, but has been seen by millions and millions of people since," he said. "It impressed upon the advertising community that the Super Bowl was very special. And after that, it became a competitive showcase for commercials. The Super Bowl became a showcase not just for the product but for the advertising itself."

A modern-day example of the power of Super Bowl ads, he said, is the campaign launched by Doritos, which invites its fans to create their own 30-second commercials to be judged and voted on by others, with the winning ad shown during the game.

The peak for Super Bowl ads came around 2000, when dot-com companies had plenty of money to spend and a desire to make a splash, Robertson said. Today, the game remains attractive for new and innovative companies as well as foreign companies trying to enter the U.S. market. In addition, there are certain well-known brands such as Budweiser or Chevy that are expected to advertise during the Super Bowl.

The NFL has tried to market more to women and younger viewers, but Robertson said Super Bowl advertising still trends toward "beer, cars and trucks and ads that tend to be sexist." Still, he added, there has been a shift away from more "testosterone-fulfilling" commercials to ones that emphasize American values, such as Chrysler's two-minute-long 2011 ad featuring rapper Eminem driving around Detroit to narration that emphasized the city's resilience but never mentioned the product.

"You'll find in times of conflict, such as after Sept. 11, advertisers as a whole tend to reflect American patriotism," he said.

The bottom line? The Super Bowl is the biggest possible stage for advertisers, with high risk and major rewards for the companies that create commercials that resonate. That creativity is what spawned Robertson's interest in his current academic field in the first place.

"The Super Bowl ads got me into marketing. The ads were so fun and engaging, I had to be involved with that."

-- Jonathan Morales