Why the Super Bowl Is One of Advertising’s Last Safe Bets

It offers epic scale across multiple generations

In the olden days, the Super Bowl was the place where the greatest brands dared to place ads. It was the arena of boldness. Of daring. The most hard-core advertising forum of all.

In 2016, however, the data is clear: This revered platform feels like a heck of a smart place for a brand to show up. This year, my agency, StrawberryFrog, worked with our client, SunTrust Bank, to be one of the brands going big in the Super Bowl. And here's why:

On a regular night, telling people at a dinner party to crowd around the television to watch an ad is like telling them you have the bird flu and are about to sneeze. But not on Super Bowl night.

Super Bowl 50 on CBS is designed to capture hearts and minds and 260 million eyeballs. They will come for the game—but also for the commercials, because the ads are seen as entertainment in and of themselves. With the fragmenting of TV viewing and the consumer having choice overload, appointment TV viewing is a stronger tool than ever for marketers.

The Super Bowl is an American social and cultural phenomenon; no one wants to be left out of the loop. Leading up to the game, during the game, and for days after the game, the event is the focus of social discussion and debate. The Super Bowl makes more sense than ever because it gives brands a huge platform.

You need to keep the mood of the nation in mind. We are living in conservative times. People are fearful, anxious. Alongside ads that are silly, humorous, wacky, we will deliver a profound ad that moves people. That is why our team, our clients and partners have created the "onUp movement" for SunTrust Bank and launching it during Super Bowl 50 with an innovative commercial called "Hold Your Breath." It is an optimistic second-by-second reminder that worrying about money can cause you to miss life's moments. It is, I believe, one of the first interactive ads that will engage people from the first second and keep them engaged until the end, getting them to participate in the ad and then go to onUp.com where they can take a "mental wealth" quiz.

Platforming gives brands a bigger role

It is exactly this powerful platform that gives brands like SunTrust the opportunity to stand out. Platforming a brand lets you punch above your weight, connect with the power of culture, hang with other American icons and, in the end, create mass awareness and engagement. I saw this firsthand when Karin Drakenberg and I brought Heineken to James Bond and when our agency did the Casino Royale global Heineken campaign. And we saw this later, when we brought Pampers to the Super Bowl.

Think about it. Between the screaming baby and the millions of daily interruptions and flashes of messaging that seem to enter and exit our brains in the blink of an eye, the many different ways we watch programs, and don't forget the tiny social media messages that pop up incessantly, brands today need bigger platforms to break through and bigger ideas to galvanize the public, make waves and get people to remember them. How many hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on client messages that never register?

Would Barack Obama, for example, ever have become president if he didn't get the platform to speak to the American public at the Kerry convention in 2004? Would we have known who he was? Would he have had the awareness? The cachet? Now, think about how this platforming can be applied to your own brand.

Super Bowl and spiraling fragmentation

The Super Bowl platform makes even more sense when you look at the devolution of traditional television. There's a downward spiral in regular TV ratings that continues with no end in sight. The Super Bowl stands out as a powerful platform for brands that want to accelerate their trajectory and make an impact with American consumers.

Against this are the numbers that underscore the rapid changes in how TV viewers are consuming content. Americans are increasingly watching TV shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other services. Some 40 percent of households now have subscription video service, Nielsen reported at the end of 2015. In an era of fragmentation, the Super Bowl is the only program remaining that has a mass American ritual component.

Our purpose-driven Super Bowl 50 campaign for SunTrust Banks will break during the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. Getting here required a lot of research aimed at uncovering the cost and benefits of the Super Bowl. Working closely with our clients who think big and our media partner, 22squared, we uncovered tremendous insights. Per Jenny Reed, vp, media director, 22squared, using the "Super Bowl as a launch platform for the SunTrust campaign provides the opportunity to not only instantly reach 46.6 percent of their core target, but many others to aid in jumpstarting the movement support at a national level that will then fuel the local support. "

There is tremendous power in being associated with positive culture. It's a completely feel-good time when people are surrounded by friends and family and enjoy watching and discussing commercials and what they mean. Another benefit of the Super Bowl is that many of those tuning in to the commercials are the very same hard-to-reach consumers who don't watch commercials the rest of the year.

"The Super Bowl continues to maintain its status as a cultural phenomenon and one of the most unique platforms to engage with typically hard-to-reach audiences," said Ed Klein of 22squared. "Over 20 percent of the millennial target will be there, providing unrivaled reach numbers. And nearly 40 percent of all U.S. affluent households will be there, 28 percent above typical channels. In addition to the more traditional TV viewership, the Super Bowl has continued to evolve as a social and digital platform. The Super Bowl audience last year produced nearly 14 million tweets, and 65 million fans were on Facebook, participating in live-feed conversations."

Millennial Super Bowl viewership far outpaces closest competitors

For Millennials, perhaps the most adept audience at avoiding advertising, the Super Bowl far eclipses the closest competitors in viewership and represents a rare occasion when the ads truly become a central part of the event itself.

I spoke with Chris Boothe, CEO of one of our longtime media partners, Spark, and he told me that the game delivers an avalanche of viewers from this coveted generation: "Super Bowl XLIX most recently delivered a 35.81 live-plus-same-day rating (versus an average 1.02 prime-time number for the top 5 markets), reflecting a mind-boggling 34.6 million total millennial viewers (ages 18 to 34) in a span of just under four hours. To juxtapose the Super Bowl viewership with two popular hit shows, the current season of Fox's Empire totaled 45.1 million viewers over the course of 10 episodes, while AMC's The Walking Dead has collected 58.5 million viewers (ages 18-34) for the entire current season. When compared with the Super Bowl, it took seven episodes of Empire (36.1 million) and five for The Walking Dead (37 million) to surpass the Super Bowl XLIX millennial total audience."

But what about hard-to-reach affluents? Or C-suite management? Opinion formers? Or women? Isn't Super Bowl a male-dominated, football-loving sporting event? No, this is a social and cultural event that unites and has some of the highest engagement numbers with hard-to-reach audiences. It has cultural relevance, the phenomenon probably dating back thousands of years to the Roman Empire. It's like the scene from Ridley Scott's Gladiator when the Roman Forum reveals an audience made up of the Roman elite, royal family members as well as men, women and children in the bleachers and the cheap seats—all sitting together, eating marzipan and taking in the spectacle. Food tastes have changed, but much remains the same. 

"Contrary to many long-held beliefs, the Super Bowl attracts an impressively large number of female viewers," Boothe told me. "Super Bowl XLIX saw a total of 34.8 million female viewers (ages 18-49). This reflects a 25 percent increase of female viewers when compared to prime-time broadcast viewership among the same demo, which averaged a 1.85 rating. Millennials, females and, in a sense, all viewers enjoy the Super Bowl as a competition on two levels: who wins the big game but also who has the best commercials. The data is clear—the Super Bowl is an investment that delivers superb results for marketers."

For CEOs and CMOs and marketers wanting to make a bigger impact. Super Bowl 50 is the biggest awareness opportunity, and it doesn't require much to sustain. It offers awareness that starts building for weeks before the game and is big with social. For brands delivering bigger brand ideas, the Super Bowl is the kickoff to the year. It enables brands to have local activities across markets and make all those diverse efforts work even harder.

"It's the one venue in which the commercials are every bit as important to viewers as the programming," notes my colleague, Shayne Millington, ecd of StrawberryFrog.

Once you understand the power of the platform and why it's the smart choice now, then you need to focus on the ad itself. And then, the decision comes down to what kind of ad you want to make—wacky, absurd, celebrity endorsements, straight product pitches—or an opportunity to deliver an important galvanizing message to America.

Scott Goodson (@scottfrog) is founder and chairman of agency StrawberryFrog.