Super Bowl, Super Score

Advertising in the Super Bowl has been pilloried by many as a colossal waste of money, especially in the current economic climate — one reason brands like GM and Pepsi opted for alternative strategies. But is this assumption based on the facts? Using the findings from a study we conducted, which examined data from several dozen major big-game advertisers, we’d like to debunk some Super Bowl myths and show that advertising on yesterday’s game was most likely well worth the expense.

Myth No. 1: It involves huge amounts of money, the returns from which will never justify the expenditure. The first part is true — Super Bowl advertising is expensive, at $2.5-2.8 million for a 30-second spot. The second part of the statement could not be further from the truth. We found that brands that advertise on the Super Bowl see an average sales uplift of more than 11 percent in the following month. This generates an ROI from Super Bowl ads 250 times greater than the ROI from the average TV ad. To generate a sales uplift equal to one Super Bowl ad, you would have to spend an average $9 million on “ordinary” TV ads. And that’s just considering the immediate impact on sales in the post-Super Bowl period. Not only do most brands experience a high sales return on their investment in a Super Bowl advertising spend, this return is multiplied by the positive brand impact of the Super Bowl itself. If the tremendous brand building power of the Super Bowl is added, the returns are at least doubled.

Myth No. 2: It’s just as beneficial to advertise on programs both before and after the Super Bowl. This is an argument beloved by those who don’t have the budget or can’t get senior management to sign off on advertising during the game itself. It’s also untrue. Brands that advertise before and after the game do not get as much money back. For example, a major snacks brand that advertised at kick-off in last year’s game yielded around 10 percent less ROI than its ad during the game itself.

Myth No. 3: If you’re doing Super Bowl advertising, its best to spend on the first quarter because returns are higher. There’s no truth in this at all. The data shows that there is no correlation between ROI and the quarter the ad is shown in. If anything, our analysis suggests that ROI is highest in the fourth quarter. Though there are exceptions, people tend to watch the whole Super Bowl — and parties don’t end before the game does.

Myth No. 4: The success of Super Bowl advertising can be judged by an ads score in USA Today’s Ad Meter. You’ve probably already poured over today’s Ad Meter, but its research is conducted without any statistical basis — and it’s almost invariably wrong. We saw that a major brand that ranked No. 1 on the Ad Meter in a past year yielded an average ROI of below $1 while a different ad from the same brand ranked No. 20 and yielded an average ROI of almost $3. There isn’t an inverse correlation between Ad Meter scores and Super Bowl advertising ROI, but for some ads especially, it’s close. Ad Meter is a superb example of how media puffery can distort the truth.

Behind the myths, there are some things potential advertisers should bear in mind. Analysis shows that the effectiveness of Super Bowl advertising varies according to a brand’s maturity, category and strategy. The brands that are guaranteed to see money back from a spot in the Super Bowl are established brands. The first week after the Super Bowl, small brands see an average of 13 percent sales uplift compared to 11 percent for major brands. In the month after the Super Bowl, sales uplift for small brands drops significantly to an average of 3 percent while major brands’ sales uplifts stay strong at 9 percent.

Among categories, automotive ads are especially effective during the Super Bowl with an ROI of almost double that of a regular TV ad, both at the brand and individual model level. Consumer products’ brands also do exceedingly well. The ROI effect is multiplied for products likely to be consumed while people are watching the game. For example, snacks, soft drinks and beer show ROIs well above $1.

Super Bowl advertising also shines when it’s timed to coincide with news, whether it’s a product introduction, a brand repositioning or a new business strategy. The ads that do not do well are those for companies that lack a clear strategy.

Advertising on the game is reflective of many aspects of sponsorship in general. Sponsorship investment is a risky business. It plays to the extremes. Sponsorships are divided between major events, which often yield huge returns, and smaller events, where the money could often have been better spent on consumer events or social media. The Super Bowl is one of the world’s best examples of a successful sponsorship event. Properly executed, investment in the Super Bowl delivers growth in sales, brand equity and consumer engagement.

Joanna Seddon is CEO of Millward Brown Optimor.