Does the Australian ad industry need its own Super Bowl?

Jason Dooris says the huge audiences and viral popularity achieved by Super Bowl commercials doesn’t necessarily equate to long-term brand performance and consumer engagement.

Jason Dooris photo-1The Super Bowl is massive in the US and globally, not only for the game itself, but for the world famous marketing and advertising efforts of brands.

In fact, a HuffPost and YouGov poll from early 2016 found that while older Americans are tuning in for the action on the gridiron, “26% of young Americans said that the ‘best part of the’ broadcast is the ads”.

But people raving about the great ad they saw during the game doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong advertising strategy.

In total, it was estimated the broadcasting and digital revenue for last year’s game brought in $US375 million, and for Super Bowl 50 – last year’s match between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos – the cost for a single 30-second slot was $5 million, an amount that has almost doubled over the past 15 years.

In terms of audience, $5 million will get you around 110 million pairs of eyes in the United States – the 2010 broadcast was the first to get a nine-figure audience, with all Super Bowls since then going above the 110 mark (except 2013, which dipped to just 108 million).

If you’re going to drop $5 million just to get the airtime, you’d want to ensure that the creative you’re putting up for all those people to witness is spot on. So companies forking out to feature during the Super Bowl are also inclined to invest millions more to ensure their ad is the standout piece of creative, and it’s resulted in some of the greatest, most memorable ads of all time – some becoming cultural touch points.

Think ‘Mean’ Joe Greene and the “hey kid, catch” ad for Coca-Cola at the 1980 Super Bowl. You may not know who Greene is, but the simple tug-at-the-heartstrings story has seen it listed in multiple ‘greatest ads of all time’ polls.

 

In the ‘90s we got a pair of basketball players featuring on football’s grandest stage: Michael Jordan versus Larry Bird for a Big Mac. ‘The Showdown’ was nothin’ but net for McDonald’s.

 

In 1995 Anheuser-Busch decided they didn’t need celebrities or superstar athletes to make a memorable ad. Three puppet frogs under the direction of a little-known auteur named Gore Verbinski had people all over world over repeating ‘Bud-Weis- Er’ in that annoying cadence.

 

In 2003, Reebok introduced us to Terry Tate, Office Linebacker – one of the first Super Bowl ads to go viral, seven million people downloaded the ad from Reebok’s website, and the character of ‘Terry’ appeared on numerous TV shows.

 

Perhaps the best summation of Super Bowl ads came from 26-year-old entertainment editor at The Huffington Post, Sara Boboltz, who described them as “essentially batshit, insanely expensive mini-movies with ultra-heavy-handed product placement, and watching them is the one time per year that I willingly subject myself to television commercials. I don’t say this lightly: Super Bowl ads are not bad.”

Not bad? High praise!

 

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So to a question that has been asked before: do we need something comparable in Australia, something that already has the eyeballs and the interest to really foster creativity from the marketing world?

While it’s an admirable notion – a single event that the best agencies in the land would spend big to both appear on and wow viewers with their brilliance – perhaps the main problem is the lack of a comparable platform from an audience perspective.

The Grand Finals for the AFL and NRL, Australia’s biggest sporting codes, had national average audiences of 4.1 million and 3.7 million respectively in 2016, in a year where each code had a ‘fairy tale’ narrative – a team in each finale that had gone decades without the ultimate success – to draw in viewers.

Meanwhile, game one of the most recent State of Origin saw a peak national audience of 4.423 million and an average of 3.951 million – a record for the highly anticipated annual series.

Origin and Grand Finals are about as big as it gets for TV sporting audiences down under, yet they pull in less than 4% of the Super Bowl audience. That’s admirable for a nation of 23 million people, but hard to get ‘Super Bowl’ excited about.

It also makes it nigh-on impossible to convince a company they should part ways with millions of dollars to create a ground-breaking ad, particularly when the outcome would be four million people possibly reaching the conclusion that the content is not bad.

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However, while we don’t have the kind of budgets that world’s biggest companies can offer to put ground-breaking creative on the box, it’s been proven that seriously impressive ads – ads that can compete on the Super Bowl stage – aren’t necessarily multi-million-dollar endeavours.

Frito-Lay’s ‘Crash the Super Bowl’ contests began in 2006, seeing ‘fans’ create 30-second ads for Doritos, often on shoestring budgets, with the best being aired during the Super Bowl.

However, it’s worth noting that 2016 was the final year of ‘Crash the Super Bowl’, with Frito-Lay pivoting to a new competition called ‘Legion of the Bold’, which sought to “unleash [its] creative talents on the world throughout the year”.

And really, that’s the best way to offer return on investment – not just for Australian companies that probably can’t afford the $5 million required to buy a Super Bowl slot, but for companies the world over.

A single flash in the pan of creative brilliance is all well and good, but apportioning that money on a concerted campaign that runs over a sustained period of time is a far lower-risk strategy.

Take Pepsi for example. Though they’ve created some of the most famous Super Bowl ads of all time – think Cindy Crawford in 1992 – their president, Brad Jakeman, has spoken of the need for advertising to evolve.

 

“Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5000 pieces of content a year,” he said. “Instead of having six months to develop it, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2 million, it needs to cost $20,000.”

And while it’s a bit rich for the company that’s shelled out millions to sponsor the halftime show – or, as it will be known this year, the ‘Pepsi Zero Sugar Super Bowl LI Halftime Show’ – to preach about content costing a few grand, Jakeman’s got a point.

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The silver bullet approach is rarely the best way to approach advertising. A sustained campaign, integrating social, search and traditional media, driven by content informed by real-time data insights, will get you far more bang for your buck than chucking millions of dollars at a single audience.

The Terry Tate ad is a great example – it was brilliant creative, but only 55% of people knew those were ads for Reebok, with many others assuming Terry smashing his co-workers was an ad for McDonald’s.

Advertising is much like the game of American football itself: people love to see a Hail Mary play, but they rarely win games.

So tune in next Monday for the Super Bowl – even if the game’s not for you, the advertising is as good as it gets, and the halftime show is guaranteed to bring the house down.

But don’t confuse your laughter at a one-off appearance by a celebrity in a $5 million ad slot with a clever campaign.

 

Jason Dooris is chief executive officer at Atomic 212°

 


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