The ads that bowled us over

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For years now companies have been fiercely out-bidding each other to gain the prime slot in the middle of what’s thought to be the most watched sporting event on the planet – with over 100 million viewers worldwide. Naturally, if you want this many eyes on your advert, you’d better be prepared for it, with the cost of a 30 second mid-Super Bowl ad in excess of $5 million – the most expensive in television.

The Secret to Super Bowl Success

If you’re handing over the big bucks you’d better be pretty confident that your ad is going to make an impact – so what exactly makes a Super Bowl ad, and how are they any different from the commercials we see across the rest of the year?

Well for one thing, they’re made with a much bigger budget. The Super Bowl ad is the Citizen Kane to the regular advert’s Sharknado. They are filmed in cinematic quality with Michael Bay-esque special effects, the scripts tend to be unpredictable and amusing and the casts contain a who’s who of Hollywood A-listers.

This has been the blueprint of Super Bowl ads since the early 1980s – around the time that the ads became almost as anticipated as the game itself. It was this decade that saw Pierce Brosnan take on a ninja in the Diet Coke ad, which occupied prime slot, while rivals Pepsi brought us their commercial starring one of the biggest celebrities in the world at the time, Michael J. Fox.

This use of world-famous stars of the time is something that’s continued in Super Bowl ads ever since. But just as the game itself has evolved from leather helmets and buckle-up pants, so too have the ads which populate the sport’s greatest spectacle – particularly when it comes to how much of it we see before it airs.

A tactical change

The most famous example of the modern approach to Super Bowl advertising is Volkswagen’s 2011 commercial, The Force, which channeled Star Wars in order to advertise the new Passat. In a completely unprecedented move, VW chose to release its advert before the game itself. Up until this point we had to wait until the players were back in the dressing room preparing for the second half before we saw even a peep of a Super Bowl ad.

As this was VW’s first Super Bowl ad for over a decade, it knew it had to do something different in order to stand out, and as it turned out its decision was a good one. Not long after
release, the ad had clocked up over 17 million views with the Super Bowl still two days away. As the CEO of the advertising firm responsible for the ad puts it, “it paid for itself before it even ran”.

This break from the norm, in terms of strategy, left a lasting legacy and not only for Volkswagen. The Force is still the most shared Super Bowl advert ever, and currently the second most shared ad of all time – but it also put down a marker for the way other companies would run their own Super Bowl campaigns.

In recent years, rather than the grand unveiling of a never-before-seen blockbuster ad, we now see big companies actively trialing their Super Bowl commercials in the days and weeks that precede the biggest Sunday in football. The Super Bowl commercial is no longer a 30-second slot at half-time, it now forms part of a much larger marketing campaign and, as with all modern marketing campaigns, social media has a huge part to play.

Last year saw 265 million Facebook posts, likes and comments during the big game between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots – more than any Super Bowl before it. Meanwhile, over on Twitter, the game was just as talked about with 28 million tweets referencing it – making it the most tweeted American Football match of all time. Needless to say, advertisers are well aware of the power of these platforms, so much so that out of 66 Super Bowl commercials that aired last year, 46 of them actively encouraged users to get involved using a hashtag specific to the ad, as shown in the below infographic from Salesforce.

Super Bowl social media infographic

What to expect from Super Bowl 50

So, what can we expect from 2016 as the Super Bowl celebrates its 50th anniversary (apart from a resounding victory for the Panthers, hopefully)? Well, this year sees some old faces including Budweiser, some first timers such as Amazon, and something from left field from Pokémon.

Following the path first forged by VW, all of this year’s ads are being heavily trailed online and across social media. Amazon’s #BaldwinBall hashtag is already gaining traction on Twitter, while Pokemon’s gridiron commercial debut has already clocked up over 11 million views on YouTube – five days before game day.


As for what to expect on the whole from this year’s ads, it looks to be a case of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Amazon’s ad features Alec Baldwin and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino planning a Super Bowl party, Liam Neeson stars for electronics giant LG, Ryan Reynolds takes on multiple roles in Hyundai’s offering, while Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen step forward for Bud Light. Perhaps this year’s winner of celebrity one-upmanship however is Snickers, who bring us the queen of Hollywood starlets, Marilyn Monroe (sort of), to sing Happy Birthday to the Super Bowl.

When it comes to which ad is lighting up the Twittersphere however, there is one superstar that appears to have stolen the limelight. Yes, everyone’s favorite dad-dancer Drake has stolen the show in T-Mobile’s amusing take on the Canadian rapper’s massively viral Hotline Bling video.

Super Bowl 50: Who will come out on top?

So there we have it, we are now just a few days from the big kick-off – and the biggest battle as far as we’re concerned is off the field. Barring any late surprises, 41 brand giants will go head to head this Sunday in the battle to be crowned the commercial champions of Super Bowl Sunday.

The cleats are tied, the pads are on and the helmets are fastened. Who comes out on top is now in the hands of the 100-million strong audience. Will the early leaders T-Mobile stay out in front or will it be a shutout from the old guard of Coke and Pepsi? Tune in Sunday to find out.

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