Super Bowl ads symbolize the winners and losers in the game of advertising. Instead of a dramatic single moment during a timeout in the actual football game, Super Bowl ads have become cogs in customer engagement strategies that begin long before kickoff.
“The evolution of something as iconic as the concept of Super Bowl advertising gives us fascinating evidence of the powerful and unprecedented speed of transformation in the world of marketing around us,” writes Sanjay Dholakia in an online post titled, “What 50 years of Super Bowl advertising has taught us."
In the early days of the Super Bowl, advertisers generally ran their regular ads. That changed in 1984 when Apple, with the help of Ridley Scott, turned a single Super Bowl ad into a sledgehammer that crushed tradition. Since then, Super Bowl ads have become their own genre, generating heated anticipation before the big game and excited competition after the final gun sounded over the best, funniest and most clever ad.
Dholakia observes that Super Bowl ads have been responsible for "lunatic” cultural behavior such as echoing the “WASSUP” line in a Budweiser commercial.
But the Super Bowl and Super Bowl advertising are not immune from TV-watching trends. Fewer people each year watch TV advertising. More people use streaming services. Ad blocking has become commonplace. Add to that a slipping audience for the NFL.
So instead of making the Super Bowl game the focal point of ad campaigns, advertisers have made ads part of customer engagement campaigns. The best example is Doritos and its long-running "Crash the Super Bowl" campaign that invites people to create their own ads about Doritos. The campaign each year launches months before the game and has its own build-up with the selection of semi-finalists and online voting by fans.
The Doritos example has been mimicked in one way or another by other advertisers that have redirected their Super Bowl energy to digital media to stretch the shelf life of TV ads and provide more granular measurement of impact.
The Super Bowl, with all its hype and cross-ties with pop culture, may be one of the last TV events that holds the attention of a wide swath of American TV viewers. But the growth of digital media and reliance on customer relationship marketing may have helped salvage advertising during the Super Bowl.
The game has become for ad agencies what the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual dog show is for dog owners and trainers – a chance to strut your best stuff. Most Super Bowl ads are entertaining, and a few are provocative. This year will be no exception, based on “leaked” ads that have been circulating for a week or more. The ad about Adolphus Busch’s perilous immigrant journey to America has gotten the best running start.
One thing hasn’t changed in advertising, Dholakia says. “There is still one marketing truth that comes through loud and clear in the Super Bowl ads – creativity and storytelling still matter."