Every year, football fans are treated to what’s become a cultural spectacle: the Super Bowl. Played on the second Sunday in February since 2022, the game serves as the conclusion to the football season which started in September following the NFL preseason. Three major aspects are often discussed with regard to the Super Bowl, the glory the winner takes home, the hype surrendering the latest halftime show, and the commercials that have become their own spectacle over the years. These ads have evolved from mere marketing tools to become an integral part of the Super Bowl experience. This article explores the journey of Super Bowl commercials, from their humble beginnings to the multimillion-dollar, star-studded extravaganzas that they are today.
Origins of Super Bowl Advertising:
The first Super Bowl took place in January of 1967, then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, with the cost of a 30-second commercial slot ranging around $42,000, according to Fox Business. Before finding mainstream success, Super Bowl commercials were not the subject of public attention as they are now. These ads seemed to be repeats of one another, as stated by Time Magazine.
Early Years and Milestones:
The point in which Super Bowl commercials started to become more elaborate came with the release of Apple’s now famous “1984” commercial. Aired during the Cold War, Apple played to people’s fears, portraying a “Big Brother” figure, akin to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, drawing a parallel to IBM, according to Time Magazine. Despite only airing once, the commercial effectively set a standard against which Super Bowl ads would be compared to. The ad not only showcased the product, but told a compelling story that resonated with viewers. The emotional connection between the audience and the brands became more apparent, setting the stage for future Super Bowl commercial trends.
Apple – “1984” – 1984
The Rise of Humor and Creativity:
The 1990s saw Super Bowl commercials utilize a new content tool: humor. Many brands followed suit, beginning to craft witty and entertaining ads designed to make viewers laugh. Aside from the competition on the field, brands soon began their own competition, with each one working to have the most memorable and talked-about commercial. This shift to humorous ads soon created well known spots such as Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny which aired in 1992 (four years before Space Jam released) and Cindy Crawford’s Pepsi advertisement which aired the same year, stated in the New York Post.
Nike – Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny – 1992
Pepsi – Cindy Crawford – 1992
Shift towards Star Power:
The turn of the century introduced a new innovation for Super Bowl commercials, in which companies began using celebrities in their ads. Companies began to invest heavily in securing famous faces for their commercials, as the combination of a beloved star and a well-crafted story could leave a lasting impact on the audience. We can see this in effect with the top ads from Super Bowl XVII including Heineken’s teaser for Marvel’s Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantomania with Paul Rudd, or the PopCorners featuring Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, according to Forbes.
Heineken O.O – Ant Man 3 Teaser – 2023
PopCorners – Breaking Bad – 2023
Digital Age and Interactive Campaigns:
The rise of the internet and social media in the 21st century brought about a significant transformation in Super Bowl advertising. Much like trailers for upcomings films, brands began to leverage digital platforms to create pre-game teaser campaigns, designed to stoke audience engagement in the weeks leading up to the big game. They have leveraged various social media platforms to distribute these promos, according to Time Magazine. This concept of audience engagement and feedback became increasingly popular, with several brands like Uber Eats and Booking.com rolling out their ads early for the big game this year, as seen by NBC.
Emotional Storytelling and Social Issues:
In recent years, Super Bowl commercials have evolved beyond mere entertainment and marketing. Brands are using the platform to address social issues and tell stories which connect with the audience. Advertisers recognize the importance of connecting with viewers on a deeper level, and have been using Super Bowl commercials as a medium to convey their intended messages. A notable example includes the “Like a Girl” campaign by Always in 2015, which challenged gender stereotypes, and ranked as the top campaign of the 2015 Super Bowl by Adobe, based on the mentions the ad received on social media platforms, according to the Huffington Post.
Always – #LikeAGirl – 2015
The Super Bowl as a Cultural Moment:
Super Bowl commercials have transcended their initial purpose of simply selling products to becoming cultural moments that shape the conversation long after the final play. Viewers anticipate the commercials as much as the game itself, an expectation which now includes the commercials in the “Super Bowl Trifecta,” as stated by Forbes. The commercials are dissected, discussed, and shared, turning them into a form of entertainment that extends far beyond the edge of the television screen.
The High Stakes of Super Bowl Advertising:
Increased popularity and cultural significance of Super Bowl commercials lead to increased stakes. Skyrocketing from the $42,000 cost in the beginning, the cost of a Super Bowl commercial today has jumped to $3.5 million (Forbes). In line with this new financial investment, advertisers work to create memorable, impactful content that justifies the expense. These efforts have been successful for many brands, with Budweiser for example receiving a return on investment of about 172%, according to Stanford Business.
Cultural Impact Beyond the Game:
Super Bowl commercials have the power to influence popular culture and leave a lasting impact on society. Memorable catchphrases, characters, and jingles from these ads often become ingrained in the collective memory. The E-Trade baby, the Old Spice “Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” and Snickers’ “You’re not you when you’re Hungry” are only a few examples of Super Bowl commercials that have utilized these elements achieved cultural immortality (People Magazine).
ETrade – ETrade Baby – 2008
Snickers – Betty White “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” – 2010
Super Bowl Commercials: A Reflection of Society:
The evolution of Super Bowl commercials mirrors the changing landscape of society. From the straightforward product-focused ads of the 1960s to the socially conscious and emotionally driven narratives of today, Super Bowl commercials have adapted to the values and preferences of each era. Advertisers keenly observe societal trends and tap into the cultural zeitgeist to create commercials that will resonate with the audience.
The Role of Technology and Innovation:
Advancements in technology have played a crucial role in shaping the landscape of Super Bowl commercials. High-definition displays, online streaming, and social media platforms have expanded the reach and impact of these advertisements. Brands now invest not only in the production of the commercials but also in creating immersive online experiences, interactive campaigns, and augmented reality applications that complement their Super Bowl spots.
The Super Bowl Commercial Formula:
There is no denying the evolution of the Super Bowl commercial, though certain elements have remained constant in recent years. Humor, emotional storytelling, celebrity endorsements, and cultural relevance continue to be key components of memorable Super Bowl campaigns. Advertisers strike a delicate balance between promoting their products, and entertaining their audience to maintain a lasting impression.
Controversy and Critique:
For every successful Super Bowl ad, there are some that have not been met with the same acclaim. Some ads have faced criticism for being culturally insensitive, perpetuating stereotypes, or trivializing serious issues. Take for example Just for Feet’s 1999 “Kenya Mission” advertisement. The ad has been described as racist, and led to a $10 million lawsuit by Just for Feet against advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi for professional malpractice (CBS News). In the age of social media, any misstep by advertisers can quickly lead to public backlash. Advertisers must navigate the fine line between creativity and responsibility, ensuring that their commercials resonate positively with diverse audiences.
Just for Feet – Kenyan Runner 1999
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