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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). The Super Bowl is also among the most watched sporting events in the world, mostly due to its North American audiences, and is second to the UEFA Champions League final as the most watched annual sporting event worldwide.
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, often coming from major brands (such as Budweiser, who annually airs spots during the Super Bowl; 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 also become a cultural phenomenon of their own; many viewers only watch the game to see the commercials, while national surveys (such as the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter) judge which advertisement carried the best viewer response.
Due to the critical mass of viewers who view the game yearly (covering numerous demographics and age groups), 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 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.
Super Bowl commercials 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 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, Gildan Activewear and BlackBerry aired Super Bowl ads in both Canada and the U.S., while the 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 humor, along with other factors.
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, and Master Lock would run other versions of the ad yearly during later editions of the Super Bowl 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 remake of the ad in 2012 entitled "Stinky", to promote its new Unstoppables fabric softener. The new ad aired during the pre-game show of Super Bowl XLVI.
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.
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. In contrast to "1984", "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 twelve times in its 25-year history. Its latest victory came in 2013 (Super Bowl XLVII) with a Budweiser advertisement entitled "Brotherhood", which 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. In 2002, during the first Super Bowl after the September 11 attacks, Budweiser aired an emotional ad featuring the Clydesdales bowing in respect at the site of the attacks—reinforcing its identity as an American beer.
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.
A number of Super Bowl ads have been blocked by networks' Standards and Practices departments (or became controversial themselves) 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.
However, attempts have been made to air political ads at the local level during the game: in 2012, Randall Terry attempted to use a provision in the FCC's rules regarding political advertising (which requires that stations offer advertising time for political candidates within 45 days of an election or primary) to force several local stations to air a graphic anti-abortion advertisement (which would have featured images of blood-covered fetuses) during Super Bowl XLVI. After a complaint by the Chicago-based station WMAQ, who refused to air the ad, the FCC ruled that it would be impossible to air political advertising during the Super Bowl because there is not enough local advertising inventory available to allow for equal-time compliance, and also found that Terry did not show enough evidence that he was a bona fide candidate eligible to receive ad time in such a manner.
At Super Bowl XLIV, the non-profit organization Focus on the Family aired an advertisement featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. Pam said that she was advised by doctors to have an abortion as she was exposed to amoebiasis, but she carried the pregnancy to term. The ad itself made no reference to abortion or Christianity, and referred to Tim as a "miracle baby" who "almost didn't make it into this world." The then-unseen ad drew criticism from some abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood, who asked CBS to pull the ad because they argued that it was divisive. The claim that Tebow's family chose not to perform an abortion was also widely criticized; critics felt that the claim was implausible because abortion is a criminal offense in the Philippines, where the Tebow family was living at the time, making it unlikely that doctors would recommend the procedure.
CBS's decision to run the ad was also criticized because in the past CBS and other networks had declined to run 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).
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. The company considered the rejection to be discrimination and a double standard, given that CBS had allowed the controversial Focus on the Family advertisement to be shown during the game. A New York Post writer also felt that their ad was "no more racy than nearly any beer commercial not starring the Budweiser Clydesdales."
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 blocked 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 controversial "Hopper with Sling" digital video recorder from being considered Best in Show at CES 2013 for similar reasons
An older, but similar Sodastream commercial was shown in place of Bogusky's version (which also featured exploding pop bottles in a similar fashion, but with no direct references to any other brand), one that had been banned in the United Kingdom on account of being deemed "a denigration of the bottled drinks market."