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The Super Bowl has frequently been the most watched American television broadcast yearly. Super Bowl XLV, played in 2011, became the most-watched American television program in history with an average audience of 111 million viewers (beating only Super Bowl XLIV, which itself had taken over the #1 spot held for twenty-eight years by the final episode of M*A*S*H).
As a result of being one of the few annual events to achieve such wide viewership, many high-profile television commercials are broadcast during the game domestically, often coming from major brands (such as Budweiser, with notable campaigns such as the Bud Bowl and the Clydesdales), and smaller or lesser-known brands seeking the exposure that can be obtained through Super Bowl advertising. However, this amount of prominence has also carried a high price: at Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, the average cost of a 30-second advertisement was around $4 million.
Super Bowl advertisements have become a cultural phenomenon of their own alongside the game itself; many viewers only watch the game to see the commercials, while national surveys (such as USA Today's Super Bowl Ad Meter) judge which advertisement carried the best viewer response.
The Super Bowl is one of the few events on American television that a critical mass of viewers (covering almost all demographics and age groups) watches simultaneously. Airing a commercial during the Super Bowl can prove to be valuable for advertisers seeking an audience for their products and services; as such, the network who broadcasts the Super Bowl can also charge a premium on the advertising during the game, to the point where marketers have raised concerns that Super Bowl advertising has become so expensive that the sales the advertising produces do not pay for the cost of buying ad time. Some companies that had previously been major Super Bowl advertisers, such as General Motors and Dr. Pepper, have dropped Super Bowl advertising entirely due to its increasing cost. Super Bowl XLVI, broadcast on NBC, set a record for the price of a Super Bowl advertisement, selling 58 spots (including those longer than 30 seconds) during the game, generating $75 million USD for the network; the most expensive advertisement sold for $5.84 million. Super Bowl XLVII and Super Bowl XLVIII both set the average cost of a 30 second commercial at $4 million.
Due to the increased buzz surrounding the commercials, exposure from Super Bowl advertising can also occur outside of the game. The ads themselves often receive additional airplay from television morning shows and newscasts after the game, and can also become viral videos.
The Super Bowl commercials seen in the U.S. are generally limited to the American broadcast of the game—preventing international viewers from watching the game with these often iconic commercials. However, in recent years, some television stations in Canada have aired highlights of the commercials during their local newscasts, and Super Bowl advertisers have posted their commercials on websites such as YouTube following the game, alleviating the issue (and also allowing the ads to further become viral as well). Complaints about the non-availability of the U.S. Super Bowl ads are common in Canada; although U.S. network affiliates are widely available on Canadian cable and satellite providers, the "simultaneous substitution" regulations give Canadian television networks the right to request that a U.S. feed of a program be replaced with its Canadian counterpart on these providers if it is airing a program in simulcast with a U.S. network. This rule is intended to protect the investments of Canadian broadcasters in exclusive domestic broadcast rights, and also protect Canadian advertisers who had purchased their own advertising time on the Canadian network. As a result, most American Super Bowl ads are effectively "blacked out" by the Canadian broadcaster.
Some U.S.-based advertisers, particularly PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch (via its Canadian subsidiary Labatt), do buy ad time during the CTV broadcast (which costs a fraction of the price to air an ad on the U.S. broadcast) to air at least some of their American commercials, while some companies produce new ads specifically for the Canadian audience. However, many Canadian advertisers simply re-air ads from their regular rotation, or air the same ad multiple times over the course of the game, neither of which is typical during the U.S. network broadcast. Reasons cited by Canadian advertisers for these practices include the additional talent and post-production fees that would be required to broadcast the American ads in Canada, and the perceived lower "cultural resonance" of the game for Canadian viewers as opposed to Americans. However, the inverse has also occurred with Canadian companies purchasing ad time during the game in the U.S.: in 2013, both BlackBerry and Gildan Activewear aired Super Bowl ads in Canada and the U.S., while Bank of Montreal bought local advertising time in some areas to promote its BMO Harris Bank branches.
A number of Super Bowl advertisements have become iconic and well-known; often due to their high quality, use of surreal humor, along with other factors such as visual effects, celebrity cameos and unpredictability.
Several notable commercials aired during Super Bowl games during the 1970s. In 1973, Master Lock first ran an advertisement demonstrating the strength of its locks, by having a person shoot it with a gun in a failed attempt to breach it. The advertisement proved popular, leading the company to produce new versions of the ad for later Super Bowl games throughout the 70's and 80's. In 1977, Xerox aired a Super Bowl advertisement entitled "Monks"; starring Jack Eagle as a monk named Brother Dominic discovering that he could create copies of a manuscript using a new Xerox photocopier.
Although the advertisement did not originally premiere at the Super Bowl (being first aired in 1979), Coca-Cola aired an iconic ad during Super Bowl XIV in 1980, featuring Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro defensive lineman "Mean Joe" Greene being offered a Coca-Cola by a young fan, and tossing the kid his game-worn jersey as repayment. The ad quickly became one of his most famous roles, and also prompted Procter & Gamble to produce a parody of the ad in 2012 entitled "Stinky". The ad saw Greene reprise his role, but having the young fan throw Unstoppables fabric softener to Greene instead of Coca-Cola, and the fan rejecting his jersey because it smelled.
At Super Bowl XVIII, Apple Computer broadcast an advertisement for its Macintosh computer computer entitled "1984", created by the agency Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott. The advertisement, which incorporated elements inspired by the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, featured a woman wearing track-and-field clothing (including orange pants and a white shirt branded with an image of the Macintosh) sprinting into a large auditorium and hurling a large hammer into a screen (displaying a large Big Brother-like figure speaking to a massive assembly of drone-like people in the audience), concluding with the message "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like '1984.’” The advertisement received critical acclaim from both viewers and critics alike for helping position the Macintosh as a unique entry into the personal computer market, and is often considered to be one of the best Super Bowl advertisements of all-time. While popularly considered a Super Bowl ad, it did not technically premiere during the game. A low-profile airing of "1984" on the Twin Falls, Idaho station KMVT occurred shortly before midnight on December 31, 1983 so the ad could be eligible for industry awards for ads that aired during 1983.
Apple attempted to follow-up "1984" the following year with a new ad entitled "Lemmings", to promote its Macintosh Office system. The ad, which featured blindfolded businessmen walking over the edge of a cliff in unison, was criticized for its "dark" theme and exaggerated premise. By contrast, "Lemmings" has been considered to be one of Apple's worst television advertisements.
The beer brand Budweiser has been well known for its Super Bowl advertisements featuring its mascots, the Budweiser Clydesdales. Budweiser's parent company Anheuser-Busch has been the most successful advertiser in the annual Super Bowl Ad Meter survey organized by USA Today, winning the survey thirteen times in its 26-year history. When the newspaper held an "All-Time Ad Meter" bracket tournament in 2014, two Budweiser commercials met in the finals; the winner was a 2008 ad spoofing Rocky, which went against its 1999 ad "Separated at Birth", which featured a pair of Dalmatian puppies given to two separate owners, but eventually seeing each other again after one became a mascot dog on the Clydesdales' carriage.
Budweiser's two most recent victories came in 2013 and 2014; its 2013 advertisement entitled "Brotherhood" focused on the relationship and emotional reunion of a clydesdale with its original trainer three years after leaving to become a Budweiser Clydesdale. Prior to the game, Budweiser also invited users to vote via Twitter on a name for the new foal that would be featured in the ad. A 2014 ad entitled "Puppy Love" featured a similar reunion between an adopted dog and another Budweiser Clydesdale.
Other notable campaigns Budweiser has launched at the Super Bowl have included the Bud Bowl, a series of advertisements aired during Super Bowl XXIII which featured stop motion-animated beer bottles (representing Budweiser and Bud Light) playing in a game of football called by Bob Costas and Paul Maguire. In 1995, Budweiser introduced the first of a series of ads featuring a group of three frogs named Bud, Weis, and Er. The frog ads were a major success for the brewery after the game, and ranked as one of its most popular advertising campaigns following its premiere. Anheuser-Busch's other brands have also been prominently advertised during the Super Bowl; in 2013, it also aired advertisements for Bud Light, Budweiser Black Crown, and Beck's Sapphire.
Beginning in 2006, Doritos began holding a promotion known as Crash the Super Bowl, soliciting viewers to film their own Doritos commercials to possibly be aired during the game. At Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, an additional bonus prize of $1 million was added if any of the winning entries were named #1 on the Super Bowl Ad Meter poll. An ad entitled "Free Doritos" (which featured an office worker fulfilling a prediction from a "crystal ball" that they would receive free Doritos, by smashing open a vending machine with it) which was created by Joe and Dave Herbert of Batesville, Illinois, won the grand prize after it was named the top ad of Super Bowl XLIII on the poll. The following year, additional prizes of $600,000 and $400,000 were added for reaching second and third place on the poll, plus an additional $1 million bonus for each if three of the ads were to sweep the top three. A 2010 finalist, "UnderDog", reached second place on the poll.
Some advertisers have, in order to dodge the high costs of obtaining national ad time or to broadcast more regionalized campaigns, instead purchased local ad time from individual affiliates during the Super Bowl, such as the Church of Scientology (which bought local ad time in major urban markets such as New York City). In 2012, Old Milwaukee broadcast a Super Bowl ad starring Will Ferrell; as an extension of the beer's regional campaign with the actor, the ad only aired in the city of North Platte, Nebraska.
In 2014, two notable local ads were broadcast. The Utah Department of Transportation used the game to broadcast a public service announcement on seat belt usage for its Zero Fatalities campaign, which featured a depiction of a child who had died in a rollover crash because he did not use a seat belt. In Savannah, Georgia, local personal injury lawyer Jamie Casino broadcast a two-minute long advertisement during local ad time on WTGS. The ad featured a thriller-styled retelling of how he stopped representing "cold-hearted villains" to avenge the 2012 Labor Day shooting death of his brother Michael Biancosino, and Emily Pickels, after a subsequent statement by former police chief Willie Lovett who claimed that there were "no innocent victims", culminating with Casino digging through a grave with a sledgehammer. The ad went viral after the game, with The Independent dubbing it "the most metal Super Bowl advert imaginable."
A number of Super Bowl ads have been considered controversial by viewers and critics, or even outright blocked by networks' Standards and Practices departments, due to concerns surrounding their content. Political advertising and most direct forms of issue-related advertising are usually not aired during the Super Bowl due to equal-time rules or other factors.
At Super Bowl XLIV, the non-profit evangelical organization Focus on the Family aired an advertisement featuring Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. Prior to becoming pregnant with Tim, Pam had contracted amoebic dysentery and fell into a coma. She discovered she was pregnant while recovering. Because of the medications used to treat her, the fetus experienced a severe placental abruption. Doctors expected a stillbirth and recommended an abortion. The Tebows decided against it, citing their strong faith—however, in the Philippines, where the family was serving as Baptist missionaries, abortion is a criminal offense. In the ad, Pam described Tim as a "miracle baby" who "almost didn't make it into this world", and further elaborated that "with all our family's been through, we have to be tough" (after which Pam was promptly tackled by Tim). The ad itself made no reference to abortion or Christianity, and directed viewers to the organization's website.
The then-unseen ad drew criticism from some women's rights groups, who asked CBS to pull the ad because they argued that it was divisive. Planned Parenthood released a video response of its own featuring fellow NFL player Sean James. The claim that Tebow's family chose not to perform an abortion was also widely criticized; critics felt that the claim was implausible because it would be unlikely for doctors to recommend the procedure because abortion is illegal in the Philippines. CBS's decision to run the ad was also criticized for deviating from its past policy to reject advocacy-type ads during the Super Bowl, including ads by left leaning or perceived left leaning groups such as PETA, MoveOn.org and the United Church of Christ (which wanted to run an ad that was pro-same-sex marriage). However, CBS stated that "we have for some time moderated our approach to advocacy submissions after it became apparent that our stance did not reflect public sentiment or industry norms on the issue."
Avid Life Media, the owners of the unconventional online dating services Ashley Madison and ManCrunch, has had two Super Bowl ads rejected by broadcasters due to their controversial nature. In 2009, NBC blocked an ad for the extramarital dating site Ashley Madison (with the tagline "Who Are You Doing After the Game?") from appearing during Super Bowl XLIII. Avid Life Media's CEO Noel Biderman described the banning as being "ridiculous", by noting that the league allows advertisements for alcoholic beverages to air during games despite the number of deaths attributed to them. Biderman considered the NFL demographic a core audience of the site and promised to "find a way to let them know about the existence of this service."
The following year at Super Bowl XLIV, an advertisement for Ashley Madison's sister site ManCrunch (a dating website for homosexual relationships) was blocked by CBS. The ad featured two male football fans reaching into the same bowl of chips, and after a brief pause, passionately kissing and dry humping each other, much to the surprise of another man present. Company spokesperson Elissa Buchter considered the rejection to be discrimination by contending that CBS would not have objected to the ad had it featured a kiss between a man and a woman, and also noted a double standard, given the frequent airplay of advertisements for erectile dysfunction medications on U.S. television. Fellow spokesperson Dominic Friesen stated that the company was "very disappointed" of CBS's decision, and pointed out that CBS had allowed the equally controversial Focus on the Family ad to air during the game. A New York Post writer felt that their ad was "no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales".
Avid Life was also accused of ambush marketing by critics, who argued that the company was intentionally submitting controversial ads so they could receive media exposure when they get banned, thus removing the need to actually buy ad time during the game. However, Buchter denied these claims, and indicated that the company did have serious intentions to purchase ad time during the game if its commercials were accepted.
Although not a national ad, Randall Terry controversially attempted to use a provision in the Federal Communications Commission's rules regarding political advertising (which requires that broadcasters offer "reasonable access" to advertising time for political candidates within 45 days of an election or primary) to force several stations to air a graphic anti-abortion attack ad (which featured images of blood-covered fetuses) during Super Bowl XLVI. Following a complaint by the Chicago-based NBC-owned station WMAQ (who refused to air the ad), the FCC ruled that Terry could not expect reasonable access to advertising time during the Super Bowl because of the magnitude of the event and the small amount of local advertising time. However, the FCC also found that Terry did not show enough evidence that he was a bona fide candidate eligible to receive ad time in the first place. Amanda Marcotte of The Guardian believed that "with these ads, Terry is hoping to catch a little wind from all the attention that Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is getting right now. Not only is he stealing Tebow's strategy of running ads denouncing women's rights during the annual rite of masculinity known as the Super Bowl, but he's using Tebow's name heavily in the fundraising he's doing around these ads."
In 2013, SodaStream submitted a Super Bowl advertisement directed by Alex Bogusky, which featured a pair of Coca-Cola and Pepsi deliverymen finding their bottles exploding and disappearing when another person uses the SodaStream to make their own beverages; representing a disruption of the soft drink market. The ad was rejected by CBS for its direct attacks towards the two rival companies. A Forbes writer expressed concern that the network may have had intentionally shown protectionism towards the two soft drink companies (who have been long-time Super Bowl advertisers), and drew comparisons to a recent incident where CNET (a technology news site owned by CBS) was controversially forced by its parent company to block Dish Network's Hopper with Sling digital video recorder from being considered Best in Show at CES 2013 because the broadcaster was in active litigation over an automatic commercial skipping feature on the device.
An older SodaStream commercial was shown in its place (which also featured exploding pop bottles in a similar fashion, but with no direct references to any other brand); ironically, this particular ad had been banned in the United Kingdom for being considered "a denigration of the bottled drinks market." Another SodaStream ad featuring Scarlett Johansson was produced for and aired during Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014; the rejection of an initial version for containing the line "Sorry, Coke and Pepsi" was overshadowed by growing controversies surrounding the fact that its factory is located in an Israeli settlement.
In 2014, Coca-Cola aired a Super Bowl advertisement entitled "It's Beautiful"; themed around multiculturalism, the ad featured scenes depicting Americans of various ethnicities (including a same-sex couple, the first to ever appear in a Super Bowl ad) set to a rendition of the patriotic hymn "America The Beautiful" with lyrics sung in multiple languages. The ad was divisive, with users taking to Twitter under the hashtag "#SpeakAmerican" to discuss their views and opinions on its content: those against the ad argued that per the melting pot principle, Coca-Cola should not have used languages other than English, the de facto language of the American people, to promote its products to ethnic minorities, and former Republican Congressman Allen West stated that "If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing America the Beautiful in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come—doggone we are on the road to perdition." By contrast, others praised the ad for celebrating the diversity of American people, while The Guardian writer Jill Filipovic noted that the company had been increasingly targeting minorities, such as Latino Americans, who are more likely to be heavy drinkers of soft drinks because of their low cost, but that "Coke's targeting of Latino and other immigrant populations is about as progressive as RJ Reynolds marketing menthol cigarettes to African-Americans or Phillip Morris hawking Virginia Slims to women–that is, not very. Before we applaud Coke's advertising diversity, we should ask: do we really want Coke to diversify?"