Super Bowl Commercials: Advertisers Prepare for Their Biggest Stage

Posted February 4, 2018 4:35 p.m. EST

In an era of cord-cutting and ad-skipping, the Super Bowl is a sweet salve for the nation’s marketers. There is no bigger stage for advertisers — last year’s game drew more than 111 million viewers — and that is why they are willing to shell out millions of dollars to be on it for 30 seconds.

Last year, commercials with social and political messages stole the show, but this year’s crop of advertisers seems to be steering clear of such commentary and aiming for laughs and nostalgia.

Of course, they are paying the same high-ticket prices: The average cost of a 30-second ad in the Super Bowl is more than $5 million this year, according to ad buyers, roughly in line with last year. And that does not count all the expenses tied to making and promoting an ad, like the star power. Cindy Crawford, Peter Dinklage and Danny DeVito are among the famous faces who will make commercial appearances this year.

While some ads will focus on philanthropy, the tone seems to have shifted from last year, when Airbnb and 84 Lumber ran spots that were viewed as responses to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and Audi broadcast a commercial advocating equal pay for women. Some industry experts were expecting at least one major ad focused on women this year, perhaps tied to the #MeToo movement.

“I’m a little bit surprised,” said Charles R. Taylor, a professor of marketing at the Villanova University School of Business. “Some of the best ads over the last 10 years have focused on female empowerment, like the Audi daughter ad.”

Women are generally much less visible in Super Bowl ads than men, even as Nielsen data shows that women were 47 percent of the audience for last year’s game. Taylor, who recently studied Super Bowl ads from 2008 to 2017, found that 76 percent of the commercials showed a man as a principal character, while 43 percent featured a woman as a principal character.

Susan Credle, the global chief creative officer at the agency FCB, said Super Bowl advertisers may be “concerned about looking opportunistic versus supportive.” And humor, she noted, was particularly appealing given the social and political climate.

“Sometimes when the world is troubled or America is feeling a little — well, I wouldn’t say it was an up 2017 for everybody — I think there is a tendency to want to balance out the energy,” Credle said. “Lightheartedness and a little fun and joy is probably a good antidote to the reality that we’re sitting in.”

A ‘Game of Thrones’ reference and a Jeff Bezos cameo.

Fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” have been buzzing about a commercial for Doritos and Mountain Dew that stars the actors Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman, as well as the musicians Missy Elliott and Busta Rhymes. The PepsiCo brands cast Dinklage to represent fire, for a new spicy Doritos flavor, while Morgan plays ice for a new kind of Mountain Dew.

Greg Lyons, the chief marketing officer of PepsiCo’s North American beverage unit, said the casting was not a reference to Dinklage’s “Game of Thrones” character, who advises a queen who owns dragons. The actor, he said, is “fiery on his own.”

Lyons said, “He was in ‘Elf’ — he was pretty fiery in that as well.”

In another kind of pop-culture moment, Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, who has become far more visible in recent months at Hollywood and charity events, will appear in his first ad for the company, which promotes its Echo device.

Half a billion dollars in commercial time.

While it has never been easier for advertisers to reach vast numbers of people around the world, thanks to the internet, the lure of the Super Bowl is the one huge audience it provides. Advertisers spent a combined $534 million on ads before, during and after the game last year, according to the research firm Kantar. The company said that the roughly $5 million a 30-second commercial cost last year compared to $2.5 million for 30 seconds in the National Football Conference championship game and $1.9 million for the same time in the Academy Awards.

“It’s a finite amount of inventory,” Gibbs Haljun, managing director of media investment at GroupM, the media buying arm of WPP. “There’s only one game, it’s only on once a year, the ratings are relatively stable and it is what it is.”

Still, it appeared that NBC was selling at least some spots down to the wire, as illustrated by a last-minute buy from that the company announced on Friday. In January, was promoting its decision to sit out of this year’s game and arranging press interviews with its chief marketing officer about alternative plans for the money.

NBC said in an email late Friday that it had sold all of its ads for the game.

The network, which is owned by Comcast, has had the dual challenge this year of selling ads for both the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, which will begin Friday.

“I can’t remember the last time that occurred,” Haljun said, “so this is kind of an odd challenge for them and continues to make the negotiations a little more interesting and robust.”