Scoring the Best Super Bowl Ad Placement Is Almost as Hard as Winning the Big Game

With a $5 million-plus investment at stake, brands and media buyers don't want to fumble

Because the Super Bowl is sold by position, marketers have to determine up front where they want their spots to appear. Getty Images
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Key insights:

Last May, Fox and the NFL had a big surprise for advertisers considering buying a spot in Super Bowl LIV. The companies said they would be reducing the number of ad breaks in each quarter of Sunday’s championship game from five to four, in order to speed up pacing and improve the viewing experience. The new format—which mirrors that of regular season NFL games, consolidating the same number of in-game spots into four fewer ad pods—resulted in a contraction of premium inventory: namely, the coveted A or Z positions (referring to the first and last ads of each pod).

Buyers sprang into action. The pod reduction “ignited our marketplace” and “created a lot of anxiety in terms of getting those positions,” says Seth Winter, evp, sports sales, Fox Sports. “I moved earlier than I have historically to get my clients the best, most premium positions available,” recalls Kevin Collins, svp, group director, strategic investment, Magna Global, which traditionally runs 8-12 spots in the Super Bowl.

As a result, Fox sold out of all its 77 in-game units by Nov. 22, fetching as much as $5.6 million per 30-second spot (though the average unit price was in the low to mid $5 million range) and wrapping the briefest Super Bowl market in nine years. (Late last Friday, Fox said it had inserted an additional pod into the game, featuring five more 30-second units, to capitalize on the massive advertiser demand.)

This year’s upheaval put a spotlight on the delicate art of Super Bowl placement, in which buyers and brands try to determine the best in-game slot to run their ads. Because the Super Bowl is sold by position, unlike other sports events—negotiated alongside unit price and matching spends or other investments—marketers must determine up front exactly where in the game they do, and don’t, want their spots to appear. “Placement is a very important concern for most of the advertisers in the game,” says Dan Lovinger, who oversaw sales for 2018’s Super Bowl as evp, advertising sales, NBC Sports Group. “They all have their own theory, though none of them are proven universally to be the truth.”

In discussions with buyers and the TV execs who sell Super Bowl spots, there’s no consensus about which quarter in the game is the best, and worst, to run ads in. However, all agree that A positions are by far the most valuable, no matter which quarter they appear in, followed by Zs. “A’s are the highest priority for most Super Bowl advertisers, because they get to control the narrative of the pod,” instead of potentially following a “less-than-scintillating” spot, says Lovinger. “Everybody would rather be first in the pod than in the middle of a pod.” Fox sold out its A positions by early fall, followed by Zs, says Winter.

Yet even Z positions are seen as risky by some buyers. “You’re going into [game] action, so it’s appealing, but are you really going into action, or are you going into a promo for one of the network shows, and then going into action?” says Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead, Mindshare U.S.

When it comes to Super Bowl positioning, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Winter. Brands are fixated on different quarters throughout the game, with no consistent pattern by holding company or category. Among the conflicting data buyers parse: In minute-by-minute ratings, the highest-rated ad pods are in the third and fourth quarters, but ad retention studies show that viewers are more attentive to spots that run earlier in the game. Plus, buyers have to commit to a position long before they know which teams might be qualifying, and therefore what kind of game to expect: A blowout will probably soften ratings in the second half (though there hasn’t been a lopsided Super Bowl score since 2014). This year, the third quarter sold out the most quickly, says Winter, a change from a decade ago, when the first and second quarters attracted more early interest.

Each year, the first opportunity to appear in the game goes to the incumbents—the advertisers who ran spots during the host network’s previous Super Bowl (in this case, the 2017 game on Fox). (Given the reduction of pods this year, the network tried as best as possible to accommodate those clients who wanted to return.) Then buyers sift through data and rely on gut instinct to determine the best positioning from what is still available. But the decision ultimately rests with the clients.

“I think this year, coming out of halftime would be a great spot,” says Collins, referring to the anticipated performance from Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. However, “We had a client who disagreed, and didn’t want to be in there.”

Several buyers prefer to seek out fixed pods, like the one that runs following the two-minute warning in the second and fourth quarters, or the break between the first and second quarters, or third and fourth quarters. “They’ve got constituents, whether it’s a QSR with franchisees or a beer company with distributors, and they want to be able to share with them when and where the ads are going to run,” says Lovinger. “And those constituents don’t understand that the pod slid from first to second quarter because the action dictated that. So those fixed pods become very desirable.”

Meanwhile, “floater” pods, which are used in the case of injuries or other unexpected breaks in the action, are among the least desirable during the Super Bowl. “You can’t merchandise a floater,” says Haljun. “You can’t go back to your constituents and say, ‘We’re going to be a floater, and maybe we’ll see it, or not.’ That’s a really hard thing to do.”

Sometimes, network ad sales execs will suggest position swaps after looking at the completed spots. “There have been times where two pieces of creative just happen to look similar,” says John Bogusz, evp, sports sales and marketing, CBS, which aired last year’s Super Bowl and will also be broadcasting next year’s game. When that happens, “we try to make a reasonable suggestion to avoid a situation” down the line, says Tony Taranto, svp, NFL sales, CBS. But convincing some brands to move after all the discussions required to secure those specific spots can be tricky. “Some people become emotionally attached to these positions,” says one exec.

Yet, given the hefty size of the Super Bowl audience—last year’s viewership totaled 112.7 million—and the fact that many viewers tune in specifically for the ads, which have the highest audience engagement of any telecast, most people on both sides agree that there’s really no bad position when it comes to Super Bowl ads. That’s especially the case now that all the spots are shared on social media and featured in countless news stories about Super Bowl ads, regardless of their in-game position. “Ultimately, in today’s media landscape, it does not matter,” says Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments, MullenLowe’s Mediahub. When it comes to exposure and brand awareness, “I think the playing field becomes equal.”

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This story first appeared in the Jan. 27, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.