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Super Bowl Ads Remain Big Draw For Marketers In Age Of Fragmented Media, But Can All Those Celebrity Pitches Really Land?

Everyone watches the Super Bowl, but for media industry veterans it has come to be seen as an almost holy experience in a world of continuing atomization and linear decline.

With ratings ebbing and business models crumbling, last year’s edition registered the largest audience of any TV event in history, with 115.1 million viewers (albeit with the caveat of revised Nielsen methodology). This year’s matchup on Sunday, February 11, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Taylor Swift-enhanced Kansas City Chiefs could somehow make the big game even bigger. On the corporate front, it will undoubtedly provide a morale boost at Paramount Global, which will reap hundreds of millions of much-needed dollars from the telecast as questions swirl about its future.

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With tune-in remaining massive, Super Bowl ad rates have continued to climb. Paramount said last November it had “virtually sold out” its inventory, at a price of up to $7 million for a 30-second spot, said to be a new record.

“In an on-demand world, where there’s been so much cord-cutting and streaming, this is still the single best opportunity to cume an audience,” Matt Sweeney, Chief Investment Officer of GroupM U.S. told Deadline in an interview. “It is that moment where people are sitting around a huge flat-screen TV, and an impactful part of the cultural moment is the ads.”

Such is the hunger for a piece of the moment that as the playoff field dwindled to the final four, some feelers were put out by automakers about the feasibility of elbowing their way into the big game, insiders told Deadline. (Had the Detroit Lions managed to hold off the 49ers in the NFC Championship, it would have been the team’s first Super Bowl appearance.)

Along the same lines, there has been chatter about the scenario of a marketer keen to reach Swifties coming in with a last-minute buy, though that or the Detroit scenario would require the NFL blessing the creation of a new slot. “It could be worth a conversation and trying to figure it out,” an executive in the sales trenches tells Deadline, though given the sensitivities of advertisers who locked up positions months ago, altering the lineup seems unlikely.

An ad for Doritos covers on the side of Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip ahead of Super Bowl LVIII. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
An ad for Doritos covers on the side of Luxor Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip ahead of Super Bowl LVIII. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The nature of the inventory available to ad buyers has evolved in the era of streaming and alternate telecasts. This year’s main coverage on CBS will also stream on Paramount+ and an alternate, family-skewing telecast is slated for Nickelodeon, reprising a previous one with plenty of oozing green on-screen slime graphics and other enhancements.

A person familiar with the sales process told Deadline that Paramount landed 15 exclusive buyers who opted to only have a presence on the Nick telecast. Those slots opened up in part because the cable networks won’t be able to bring over from CBS more grown-up pitches in categories like beer and sports betting. Some advertisers, among them Ally Financial, are opting to have messages only on the Paramount+ stream. “That $7 million is not for everyone,” one buyer notes.

TelevisaUnivision, meanwhile, will broadcast and stream the game in Spanish, with a selection of exclusive ads targeted to Hispanic audiences. Flagship broadcast network Univision gives the game a broader viewership than past Spanish-language Super Bowl telecasts on ESPN Deportes.

With the NFL accounting for 93 of the 100 most-watched TV programs in 2023, according to Nielsen, the Super Bowl is a watercooler throwback that has appeal to a large swath of ad categories. The usual brands like Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and major automakers will once again have a presence, but a handful of fresher faces.

Celebrity endorsements, long a go-to option for brands, have been surging in recent years due to a range of factors. Thus far in the leadup to Super Bowl LVIII, teasers and trailers have showcased Arnold Schwarzenegger (State Farm), Tina Fey (Booking.com), Kate MacKinnon (Hellman’s) and many more.

A study by ad tracking firm iSpot found that the percentage of Super Bowl ads with celebrities has risen from less than one-third of all ads in 2010 to two-thirds in 2023. (See chart below.)

“Not only must brands consider the cost to feature the talent, but the fit with the brand and the potential for unexpected and potentially unflattering news is high,” iSpot wrote in a recent report. “However, there is nothing like celebrity – if done right – to spike breakthrough, engagement, and memorability of an ad.”

The number of ads with female celebrities has risen even more sharply since 2010, going from 7% to 44% last year.

“With the NFL (and Taylor Swift) working hard to expand the league’s audience across age and to include women in particular, the rise of female celebrities will be something to watch in 2024,” the analysis added. “Although female presence has improved, the lead dialogue has historically been carried by women in less than 25% of ads.”

One major incentive for brands to hitch their wagons to celebrities is the wider footprint for ads. Unlike years ago, when the shot of attention came on game day and then in subsequent linear flights, today media consumers get served a steady diet of teasers, clips and snippets and often the full ad itself in the lead-up to Super Sunday. One buyer doesn’t expect the strategy to change. “The pre-promotion has become as important as the ad itself, especially given the importance of social media,” GroupM’s Sweeney said.

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