BENJAMIN WEY: Are Super Bowl Ads Actually Good for Business?

Puppies, horses and dead kids all made an impression during the Super Bowl, but journalist Benjamin Wey wonders if these expensive ads actually pay off for businesses. (© Anheuser-Busch/Splash News/Corbis photo)

Puppies, horses and dead kids all made an impression during the Super Bowl, but journalist Benjamin Wey wonders if these expensive ads actually pay off for businesses. (© Anheuser-Busch/Splash News/Corbis photo)

For football fans, Super Bowl XLIX lived up to the hype. For those who aren’t fans of the game, the event offered the usual diversion: the commercials. There were puppies and horses and the Brady Bunch. Advertisers offered us everything from slapstick comedy to heart-string tugging sappiness, but looked at as pieces of advertising, the big favorites are not the biggest winners.

Advertising is usually defined as marketing communication designed to persuade potential customers to become real customers. It comes from the Latin ad vertere, “to turn toward.” In order for an ad to be justified, you need to generate more in sales than you spent on the ad. At $4.5 million for a 30-second spot, a Super Bowl ad is clearly more of a status symbol than a shrewd maneuver for most companies.

Take the Budweiser ads for example. Anheuser-Busch InBev has always brought its “A” Game to the Super Bowl. “The Budweiser puppy has done what the Seattle Seahawks could not — it won back-to-back Super Bowls,” USA Today wrote. “If you’re keeping score, not only is that two in a row for the puppy, but three in a row for Anheuser-Busch and the 13th time in the past 15 years that Anheuser-Busch has won USA TODAY’s Ad Meter ranking of all the ads by a consumer panel.”


Hooray for AB InBev! But exactly how many more six-packs of Budweiser, Bud Light and all its other brands will it sell because of these ads? The truth is that beer drinkers are pretty loyal to their brands. Some years ago, Anheuser-Busch (before buying InBev) had a campaign “I’m a Bud Man.” Well, just how many Miller drinkers are going to switch? And how many new beer drinkers did these ads win over? If the ads didn’t run, how many “Bud Men” would start buying Coors as their regular brew? I, Benjamin Wey, just don’t see the numbers working out for Bud.

The McDonald’s “Pay with Love” ads are better, but I still don’t think they cover the costs. Everyone knows McDonald’s. People who have never seen an NFL game on TV (and there are billions of them) know the difference between a Bic Mac and a Quarter Pounder. So, any McDonald’s ad runs the same risk that a Bud ad does: It doesn’t move the consumer to purchase more.

Where the ads were different was that the hamburger chain was offering a new product, for want of a better word — paying with acts of kindness rather than cash or plastic. The chain has suffered a sales droop lately, and this is supposed to get people to return. “We’re on a journey to change the relationship, and Pay with Lovin’ is a direct way for us to engage with our customers,” said Deborah Wahl, chief marketing officer for McDonald’s USA, told the Orange County Register.

Well, yes, and it might just work. The trouble is that you spent $4.5 million per spot to tell everyone that you will be giving away free product. That is not a tenable situation. At some point, you have to make the $4.5 million back, and giving away burgers and fries doesn’t do it.

Much better as business tools were the ads for action movies. These were excellent in that the same people who are riveted to NFL games go to Vin Diesel and Arnold Schwarzenegger films. The target audience was there, and $4.5 million in advertising for a film that will likely gross in the hundreds of millions by the time all is said and done is not a bad way to spend advertising dollars. Now, why a studio thought advertising “Fifty Shades of Grey” made sense at the Super Bowl I, Benjamin Wey, can’t say.

NBC also used the game to promote its programs, and this is a rather elegant strategy. Yes, it could have sold the air time for $4.5 million, so there was an opportunity cost. At the same time, the fact that NBC kept some of the ad time meant there was less for others to buy, driving up the price.

And then, there were the truly clever ad buys. You see, you didn’t have to pay $4.5 million. One company spent, and this is not a misprint, just $700 to run an ad during the first quarter. That’s right, seven hundred dollars. You can buy local ads during the game, and if you are targeting a certain geographic location, it’s dynamite. And even if you wind up buying in some market where you are unknown, you get to say, “Yeah, we had an ad during the Super Bowl.”

That’s about all the folks at Budweiser can say either, and they spent a hell of a lot more than $700.

Benjamin Wey is a financier, investigative journalist, professor and a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine and other media outlets.

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