Why the Super Bowl Halftime Show Has Become the Biggest Ad of All

Katy Perry, brands poised to win big

For brands that know the score, music and sports can be a winning combination—and nowhere more than the Super Bowl halftime show, the height of music, sports and pop culture on the world's ultimate stage.

"They're a natural pairing," says Angela Natividad, international account director at social agency Darewin. "Sports and music are both highly emotional and moment oriented," she adds, and their union can help advertisers reach consumers in meaningful and memorable ways.

"They align themselves extremely well," says Joe DiMuro, president of Frukt North America, a unit of sports and entertainment agency Octagon, and can work in tandem to "expand the ability of a brand to have relevancy," notably among millennials.

"Music and sports are the key to youth passion," adds Omar Johnson, CMO of Beats by Dr. Dre. Brands that successfully fuse the two stand to "keep up with the speed of culture."

Leveraging the music-sports nexus goes beyond booking bands to play at athletic events or licensing songs for ads. Today, savvy marketers are creating compelling live experiences matched with powerful campaigns. They're "generating an aesthetic and culture," says author and entertainment expert Patricia Martin. Ultimately, it's a lifestyle play, with advertisers seeking more vibrant roles in areas where consumers forge and reinforce their identities.

The most notable music-sports integration of the year will ignite screens across the planet on Feb. 1, when pop princess Katy Perry takes the halftime stage during Super Bowl XLIX. Her glitzy, 12-minute set, sponsored by PepsiCo, will be broadcast by NBC to a television audience expected to exceed 110 million in the U.S. alone. Millions more will stream the show on their computers and mobile devices and tune in worldwide. All told, the event will be viewed in 230 countries and territories.

Super Bowl halftime is a playbook for other players, and events marrying music and sports are springing up with more frequency. "In the past, music and sports have often stayed in their own lanes," says Marcie Allen, president of MAC Presents, a music sponsorship and activation agency. "But more and more, we are seeing these worlds collide."

In some cases, these events have become mini-festivals that play out over days. They have become multifaceted entertainment happenings—with multimedia components and sophisticated product sampling—in which the games themselves are just part of the draw.

This dynamic can be a winning proposition for all involved. Leagues get to play on the cutting edge and, hopefully, attract new fans in novel ways. Artists, bedeviled by the music industry's implosion and, for the most part, no longer stigmatized by "selling out," receive much appreciated paychecks and, sometimes more importantly, exposure to help sell albums, merchandise and tour tickets.

Super Bowl Songbook

The Super Bowl halftime show has been ahead of the curve, evolving to echo and amplify changes in popular culture through the last half-century. "Football is the ultimate reality show," says Sarah Moll, the National Football League's director of media events. "If brands can find authentic ways to leverage the passion fans have for a sport or for music, they can create successful and genuine ways to engage with consumers."

Actually, brand engagement was largely absent from the earliest Super Bowl halftime breaks. Apple-pie Americana topped the menu and, for the most part, college drill squads roamed the midgame turf. In 1979, Carnival signed aboard for the first notable sponsorship, backing a program of Caribbean rhythms. Lavish shows through the '80s mirrored the conspicuous glamour of the Reagan era, and high-concept themes ruled the day. (Who can forget 1986's "Beat of the Future," featuring the uber-positive stylings of Up With People?) After 2004's "Rock the Vote" fiasco, wherein Janet Jackson's bared breast caused outsized sturm und drang, themes vanished, and halftime became a pure performance showcase for acts ranging from Prince and Madonna to Beyoncé, Paul McCartney and U2.

Beats by Dr. Dre CMO Omar Johnson | Photo: Karl J. Kaul

It was a logical progression. Rock 'n' roll's rebellious nature might have hit sour notes in the early days of the Big Game's "establishment" values. Today, of course, pop grooves are totally mainstream—in some cases, the stuff of nostalgia. Music is a commodity, a vehicle to help brands reach consumers. And halftime delivers global bang for the buck.

Cue Katy Perry. In October, the NFL named the singer as its halftime headliner for 2015, relegating contenders like Coldplay and Rihanna to the sidelines. "I'm all about female empowerment and uplifting people's spirits, and people finding their own voice," Perry recently told the AP, "so maybe there is no better person [to headline the show.] Hopefully, I can bring that incredible strength and empowerment to people through the performance."

Women comprise about 45 percent of the Super Bowl audience, so booking an act in sync with that constituency is a no-brainer. Pepsi and the NFL say they're hoping to harness Perry's star power, which has generated global sales nearing 100 million and nearly 65 million followers on Twitter. Pepsi wants "to be the most talked-about brand before, during and after the game," says Adam Harter, the soda giant's vp, consumer engagement. "We want fans to feel that Pepsi made their Super Bowl experience better, more relevant to them, more fun and more exciting."

For Perry, the gig delivers a huge global audience—including viewers who might not be familiar with her music—that far exceeds the reach of telecasts like the American Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards and the Grammys (which combined drew about 55 million viewers in 2014). At the Super Bowl, artists perform for free, but the halftime bounce can equal big bucks. Last year's headliner, Bruno Mars, saw his album sales soar 180 percent during Super Bowl week, per Billboard. He earned $60 million in 2014, placing him in a tie for 12th place in his first year on Forbes' list of the world's richest musicians.

Playing the halftime show "is one pinnacle of any artist's career," says Direct Management Group's Steve Jensen, who helps guide Perry's trajectory. "There are just a handful of people who get to do it."

True, but the intersection of music and sports is expanding to provide opportunities at every level.

Bowl-ing for Dollars

The Allstate Sugar Bowl Fan Fest is one high-profile example. The event has been held for the past nine years in conjunction with the NCAA football contest in New Orleans, and it has become an annual tradition in its own right. During its most recent iteration over the final two days of 2014, Fitz and the Tantrums as well as Train—which carry considerable cachet with young adults and the college crowd—played free shows. Tapping into cutting-edge music "expands the audience and makes it younger," says DiMuro, whose firm booked talent for the event.

"We don't just want to show up," adds Dan Keats, director of sponsorship marketing at Allstate. "We want to give something back. We want to hear consumers saying, 'I had a phenomenal experience.'" In terms of ROI, the last Fan Fest's attendance jumped 18 percent from the previous year, while Allstate's lead generation spiked 45 percent.

"Allstate provided the advertisement for the show, putting our name and image out there throughout various types of media, thereby expanding our name recognition," says Joe Karnes, bass guitarist for Fitz and the Tantrums. "They also paid us to do it, which helps us to be able to keep on doing what we do best, which is focus on making music."

Little more than a decade ago, a band that teamed up with an insurance company might have been accused of selling out. Today, however, amid falling music sales and less record-label promotional support, many acts view corporate sponsorship as a means of survival. That said, brands, leagues and artists must be mindful that such strategies can backfire. "When we love something, it becomes part of who we are," says Natividad, also an AdVerve blogger. So a misstep in the sports-music space can be especially hurtful because fans are so intensely invested in both teams and artists. (A few years ago, Creed frontman Scott Stapp reworked his tune "You Will Soar" as the theme for Major League Baseball's Florida Marlins. "Marlins Will Soar" alienated fans of the band and team alike, and Deadspin opined that the track "ruined baseball.")

Last year's Super Bowl halftime attraction Bruno Mars saw his record sales jump 180 percent the week of the game. |  Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Take Me Out to the Music

These days, there's a musical style for every marketer's need. Creative Artists Agency looks to boost America's pastime through its newly brokered deal between MLB and the Zac Brown Band. The country-folk group will play dozens of dates at stadiums during the upcoming season.

The band's shows "have become synonymous with summer," making the act a great fit for baseball, says Tom Worcester, who heads brand partnerships for CAA Music. Perks for potential brand sponsors include signage, ticket deals and promotional support on Twitter, Facebook and in traditional media. MLB's gone all-in with music of late. Pitbull, Aloe Blacc and Imagine Dragons have played Budweiser-branded shows connected to the annual Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.

Such deals generally range in price from the mid-six to mid-seven figures, depending on the stature and number of artists involved, event duration, program complexity and other factors. (The cost of Pepsi's multiyear Super Bowl halftime deal, inked in 2012, has never been disclosed. Even its duration is kept secret. It takes about $10 million to produce the halftime show.)

While branded tie-ins often revolve around live performances, sponsoring festivals isn't the only way to leverage the music-sports nexus. Last summer, Activia and the World Food Programme's "La La La" video, created for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, with vocals by Shakira, became the most-shared ad of all-time, surpassing Volkswagen's 2011 "The Force" Super Bowl spot.

Then, there's Beats by Dr. Dre, which has never backed a concert tour or produced a live public show. Even so, it routinely creates ads that generate plenty of attention for the brand, artists and athletes involved. Beats earned raves last year (and 27 million YouTube views) for "The Game Before the Game," an epic World Cup-themed spot starring Brazil's Neymar Jr., set to the intense strut of "Jungle" by Jamie N Commons & The X Ambassadors. Also last year, Beats set LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers homecoming to Hozier's gospel-rock anthem "Take Me to Church." Artists like Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar have created or remixed material specifically for Beats' sports-themed commercials.

In fact, Beats has taken over some chores previously handled by labels. That trend is expected to continue as more brands become directly involved with artists. "I get texts daily [pitching] new and unreleased music, [and] artists come to the office and play new music all the time," says Beats' Johnson. "Brands have budgets, labels don't—it's that simple." And many artists, established or just starting out, are eager to reach the young, hip audience that Beats can deliver. "We know when, where and how to push an artist," Johnson says. "Most brands don't."

For most marketers, of course, tunes are a sideline, and no one expects brands to replace record labels. That said, it's likely brands and sports will play an increasingly important role. "One thing that has really helped keep the industry afloat is help from outside sources like branded events, commercials, and film and TV licensing of songs," says Karnes of Fitz and the Tantrums. "These formerly alternative forms of getting music out to the public have become mainstream."

@DaveGian davegia@hotmail.com David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.