Monday 17 December 2018

Final frontier for Super Bowl ads

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles celebrates after winning Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles celebrates after winning Super Bowl LII against the New England Patriots. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Keanu Reeves balances on a motorbike speeding through the desert. Aerosmith's Steven Tyler drives a KIA back in time. Morgan Freeman takes on Peter Dinklage in a rap battle. Danny DeVito asks people do they want to eat him. Jeff Goldblum takes a Jeep for an imaginary test drive - with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

What am I on about? Well, that's a taste of the ads that graced the screen during last week's Super Bowl. As a sporting occasion, the NFL's marquee game is of course meaningless to most on this side of the world.

But as a bellweather for the state of big brands, spending big bucks on advertising it's definitely worth a gander.

And we really are talking about big bucks. Buying an ad during the Super Bowl will set you back around $5m. Ad Age estimated that NBC, which broadcast the game in the early hours of last Monday, made around $419m. And while the game itself is the central draw, brands will obviously buy more air time for their ads. Research firm Kantar found that advertisers spent $534m before, during and after the game last year.

Is this orgy of media buying worth it? Sure, the audience size is impressive.

Super Bowl LII was watched by 103 million Americans. Add in the out-of-home audience and the online streaming audience and you'll be pushing a total of 110 million. And this audience is put on a plate for advertisers. American Football is less of a sporting spectacle and more of a TV event. Its stop-start nature features constant breaks for time-outs, Justin Timberlake, analysis and ads. As a result, the Super Bowl has always been an occasion for brands that want make a statement. It's where Budweiser channelled Paul McCartney and unveiled its very own frog chorus, Apple channelled George Orwell with its iconic 1984 ad directed by Ridley Scott, and channelled so much money into its 2000 campaign - which featured a singing sock puppet - it became one of the best-known victims of the dotcom crash.

So what about this year's crop? Were they brimming with creativity? Were there any iconic additions to the advertising hall of fame?

Nah, not really. Reviewing them all en masse, you're struck with a sense of an industry spending a lot of money pulling some expensive but threadbare tricks out of a well-worn bag. As outlined above, celebrity endorsement is rife. There were also movie tie-ins. Humour was popular - with detergent brand Tide a winner for mocking every cliche to be found in Super Bowl advertisng.

Others struck a more sombre tone. Two beer brands, Stella Artois and Budweiser, tried to woo thirsty fans with their corporate social responsibility work; the former encouraging consumers to support a water charity, the latter highlighting its efforts to deliver clean water to people in disaster zones. Perhaps the most noteworthy ad came from car maker Ram, which struck a bum note. It used a recorded sermon of Martin Luther King Jr to flog its trucks.

As one wit remarked on Twitter: "Now that Martin Luther King is endorsing a pickup truck from beyond the grave, I think we can all declare racism officially dead."

And here's the real kicker. Later in the week, one brand made a statement that eclipsed all the ads wrapped around Super Bowl LII. Admittedly, it shows the extent you've got to go to if you want to stand out. Yep, I'm talking about the SpaceX/Tesla stunt, which saw Elon Musk's speculative space travel company launch a rocket from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre.

The launch's objective was to prove that this private company can get something large off the ground and into orbit. It successfully proved that its Falcon Heavy rocket could one day carry satellites or people into space. But that's not all. Realising the PR potential, Musk's marketeers ensured that the rocket's payload was a cherry-red Tesla roadster. The result was one hell of a photo op once the Falcon Heavy got out of earth's atmosphere; a Tesla in space with mannequin called Starman behind the wheel.

Getting a car in space is one hell of a publicity stunt. It's garnered endless amounts of publicity for both SpaceX and Tesla, was live-streamed on YouTube in glorious 1080p, and is a neat diversion from Tesla's Model 3 production delays.

Now, admittedly, not every brand has access to the same type of rocket fuel as Tesla and SpaceX, and not every brand may want to reach for the stars.

But brands that really want to make a statement may be better off thinking like Tesla, before defaulting to buying over-inflated ad spots on big TV events.

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