Today is the day when the multibillion-dollar battle for consumers’ hearts, minds and disposable income hits its apex: Super Bowl Sunday. But this celebration of advertisements that cost $5.5 million for 30 seconds — and will be dissected nearly as much as the game — comes at a time when the industry is at a crossroads. More people are getting products and services they like served up to them in more sophisticated (and at times surreptitious) ways than ever before. That means the old models are crumbling. This Sunday Magazine dives into what’s next for the world of ads, what’s behind the pricey spots you’ll see between touchdowns and punts today — and whether they work at all.
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large, and Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
For decades, the luxury world tested its campaigns and products in the West and then tweaked them for regional markets elsewhere. That could now be history. China is emerging as the new test market for luxury goods, and how ads and fashion lines work there will determine what fashion you see in the rest of the world. The reasons range from the obvious — China’s huge and growing consumer market — to advantages that other nations will want to emulate, such as the prowess of tech apps like WeChat that seamlessly marry e-commerce functionalities with social media platforms. That allows advertisers to target campaigns and check their effectiveness in real time.
Online ads have long suffered from a credibility crisis — can ad buyers trust the data that sellers present them? In 2018, digital ad buyers lost $19 billion in fraud from bot traffic and other chicanery. Blockchain could allow buyers to track their ads’ performance at every stage, potentially eliminating fraud and helping build trust. A growing number of companies are now offering blockchain-based ad solutions.
Some of the world’s most repressive regimes would like you to forget Syria’s bombing of civilians, Saudi Arabia’s murder of dissidents and the United Arab Emirates’ monitoring and incarceration of human rights activists. They’re paying big bucks to get you to focus instead on great street eats in Aleppo, raucous music festivals in Riyadh and beautiful landscapes in Abu Dhabi. From top models to Hollywood celebrities and YouTube vloggers, they’re recruiting social media influencers to whitewash their dubious records.
From “Where’s the beef?” to “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” TV ads were once cultural currency, valued almost as much as the programming they interrupted. No more: We pay for the privilege of skipping ads on Netflix or Hulu, or if we’re old school, we fast-forward through them on the DVR. The pandemic’s financial strains and logistical hurdles to film in-person commercials brought the industry crashing down last year, but it was already on life support as a jaded populace lives, eats and breathes broadband. The money is now in digital, and it’s flowing to Facebook and Google, but more on them later.
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If there’s one place where TV ads still matter, it’s today’s big game. Fox took in around $600 million from brands in ad spending last year, if you count pregame and postgame placement. If you were going to spend $600 million on, say, a car, you’d expect it would run, yes? Well, according to a 2014 study, 80 percent of Super Bowl ads don’t drive sales. Because they’re so iconic people forget what’s being advertised even if they remember the advertisement. File under: How to succeed at failing.
2. Which Might Explain the Big Super Bowl Bow Out
Those miserable results and the factoring in of known unknowns might explain advertisers’ resistance to buying into the Big Buy. Lots of traditional ad buyers are surprisingly bowing out, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Budweiser, Hyundai and Little Caesars. Reasons cited? COVID, a superheated political climate, rampant unemployment and major concerns about tone translate to too much risk, not enough reward.
3. And Yet the Bucks Still Flow
But that ill wind is blowing good toward Super Bowl newcomers, who arefilling the vacuum left by departing advertisers. Rates this year are around $5.5 million for a 30-second slot, down a pinch from $5.6 million last year, and online betting company DraftKings, their straight-world gambling corollary Robinhood (GameStop what?), food delivery app DoorDash and Huggies diapers are marking a good year by buying in.
4. Just Not to Anything … Difficult
In 2020 we got political ads from Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg. This year’s menu lacks anything that might come remotely close to ruffling any sort of feathers whatsoever. Like Black Lives Matter. Advertisers are instead opting largely for comfort food — as many of them hawk actual comfort food — during a dark pandemic winter.
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On the one hand, no one wants to punish certain corporate someones for being successful, but on the other hand, Google and Facebook have left only rubble in their wake. As the giants gobble up 60 percent of digital ad spending, many experts say the time has come for a reboot.
And when those ad dollars coming into Google and Facebook go beyond people trying to sell couches, tchotchkes, and cars and into political campaigns, then we’re talking real power. When they do this in concert with political actors, it all starts to smell a little … funny. In the case of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an OZY investigation found his party exploiting loopholes to dump oceans of cash into pro-Modi content through hard-to-trace entities. Then Facebook changed its policy. Nice to see it hit the oops button every now and then.
3. Media Mantra: If at First You Don’t Succeed … Quit
After one day realizing they had frittered away their advantage and they were being eaten alive in the digital marketplace, old media giants decided to band together, invest in new tech and fight back. It didn’t work out so well. AT&T, Verizon and Disney have all recently been seen backing off. One company that is starting to make real moves in the digital ad game? Amazon, because it can.
4. Will the Government Ride to the Rescue?
Like wrangling kids in a large family when there’s too much hooting and hollering, Mom and Dad have to inject themselves and a little order. Governments have finally started to appear as if they are going to do precisely that, with a bipartisan appetite in Washington for stronger antitrust enforcement against Facebook and Google — if not breaking them up entirely. With President Joe Biden now ensconced in office, 2021 will be a year of answered questions.
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Ads are sneaky. They’re seen and unseen all at the same time. Try to ask someone what they watched on television last night and you’ll get a recitation of shows, but as sure as there were shows there was advertising. Selling, persuading and driving home points of view. And if that’s the name of their game, might it also be used for the powers of good? Brazil’s major brands in recent years have moved toward a pro-female message in a country where sexism is rampant. And last year’s Black Lives Matter protests were normalized in broader society in part through ad campaigns from the likes of Nike, Sprite, YouTube and Papa John’s (yes, the same Papa John’s that forced out its founder for using a racial slur).
2. Slow-Walking Diversity
But are these brands practicing what they preach? The ad world knows it needs to change, it’s facing calls to change, it says it’s going to change, but then in the perfect act of legerdemain it does … absolutely nothing. It’s good work if you can get it. We imagine that the industry will roll out the old canard about a lack of “talent.” But the numbers don’t lie: Advertising, even in the age of Black Lives Mattering, is still doing a poor job of diversifying to 2021 standards.
Big Ad boardrooms might be monochromatic, but in the wild world of social media, Black people are coveted — and getting paid. Why? Because Black purchasing power is growing faster than that of whites, and in the close-knit African American community, influencers can carry more weight. From micro-influencers with a few thousand followers to the biggest megastars on Instagram, more people of color are in the mix, and more brands in fields like travel, fashion and wellness are paying up.
The“Mean” Joe Greene and the Kid commercial of 1979 is, for our money, the best 60 seconds ever of non-football time ever spent during a football game. So good it won a Clio Award. So good that even if you forget what they were advertising — Coca-Cola — you’ll remember the fearsome Pittsburgh Steeler defensive tackle and the earnest young fan and everything it said, or didn’t need to say, about race. The Greene spot is just one part of Coca-Cola’s brilliant marketing legacy that dates back to its 19th century founding, when a troubled genius chemist combined with a hustling marketing whiz to create an iconic global brand … with the help of some cocaine. OZY and HISTORY’s newest podcast, The Food That Built America, tells the tale. Listen now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts.
Last year’s Doritos Super Bowl commercial with grizzled Hollywood vet Sam Elliott and out-and-proud, hip-hop country rapper Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus waded into the culture wars in wonderfully sly fashion. It was a hit by seamlessly crossing boundaries of race, musical genre and sexuality. No one really needs a commercial to convince them to buy chips, but Doritos earned our vote — and our hard-earned cash — that day.
There couldn’t have been a more perfect place to place this Always commercial than during the 2015 Super Bowl. It was watched more than 80 million times in 150 countries, and its message was simple and simply delightful for fathers of daughters everywhere: Don’t let them punk you. It takes dads decades to impart the message that the world will do you dirty if you don’t push back. It took the folks at Always just 60 seconds. Perfect.
What’s your favorite Super Bowl ad of all time? Reply to this email and let us know.