The Real Meaning Behind those Million-Dollar Super Bowl Commercials

It’s almost time for the Super Bowl, and soon we’ll all be reminded of what a spectacle it’s become; an entertainment spectacle, a media spectacle, a production spectacle, a consumer spectacle (at some point there’s a football game). Every year, this loud and colorful display of competition and American culture becomes more over-the-top. To draw a comparison, throughout the first decade of the Super Bowl, the halftime performance usually involved college marching bands. During Super Bowl 50, Coldplay and Beyoncé performed a nine-song set list that kicked-off with hundreds of extras rushing the field to surround a monstrous technicolored stage that segued into Bruno Mars breakdancing in 90’s hip-hop leather and closed with exploding fireworks and thousands of attendees participating in a color-coordinated synchronized rainbow spectacle-extraordinaire. Simply put, times have changed.

There’s another component of the Super Bowl that’s become bigger and better over the years — the commercials. These highly anticipated ads have become less about selling a product and more about telling a story. As consumers (of products or culture), we know that these corporations have spent the big bucks (2019 projections are averaging at $5 million per 30-second spot) and we want to be entertained. Forget the same old visuals – we want special effects. The recognizable brand spokesperson? Nope, we want celebrity cameos. We want to laugh. We want to cry. We want to feel inspired. These commercials are gladiators in the Coliseum, and over 100 million eyes are watching, eager to give a thumbs up or down.

The climbing costs of these ad spots might have you wondering why a brand would pay such an inflated cost for such high-risk attention. In today’s ever-evolving cultural and consumer landscape, controversy is always calling. These ads are expected to humor without offending, inform without boring, and differentiate without looking desperate. It’s a risky short-term investment, and the return on that investment may not even have anything do with profit.

In 2018, most of the brands that secured a Super Bowl ad spot were well known and already profitable. Amazon’s Alexa was noted as a Time Magazine viewer-favorite; it was clever, relatable, and featured lots of famous people (brownie points). And, in 2018, Amazon saw a near 40% increase in overall sales in its second quarter; third quarter, some estimates concluded that Alexa owned 70% market share of smart speakers. But Amazon was already on the verge of world domination. Can a company that banks a net income in the billions really attribute any of that success to a little Super Bowl commercial?

On the other hand, companies like Avocados from Mexico may be able to connect Super Bowl exposure to accelerated growth. Prior to 2015, the avocado industry experienced peak growth in America during football season, but growth always slowed after the Super Bowl. After investing in a Super Bowl commercial for four years and running, they’ve seen steady profits after the game too, not to mention an explosion of cultural affection-bordering-on-obsession with avocados. The brand has continued to use purposeful marketing (including this year’s Super Bowl) to gain billions of impressions and convince consumers that avocados should be eaten all year round.

Besides a few outliers, though, most of the 2018 Super Bowl commercials featured the big boys like M&Ms, Tide, Budweiser and Mountain Dew. The goliaths who are too big to fail. These guys weren’t strapped for cash, and that $5 million dollar commercial probably didn’t make any measurable difference in their sales. So why bother? Because for most of these companies, the return on investment for a Super Bowl ad isn’t really about sales, or even exposure. They all have both of those in spades. Their return on investment is the symbolic implication of cultural dominance that comes with a Super Bowl commercial.

It’s the perception (and likely the reality) that their brand is inextricably linked to our hearts, our minds, our memories and our way of life. Doritos isn’t just a chip — it’s the chip. Budweiser isn’t just a beer — it’s the beer that symbolizes so much of what it means to be American. Amazon isn’t just a company — it’s a corporate maverick that has forever changed the way we shop, consume media, and connect with the world. For these companies, having a Super Bowl commercial simply reminds the world that these brands have shaped our way of life and will forever be a part of us.

So, even if you hit mute or take a bathroom break during the Super Bowl commercials, it doesn’t matter. The culture at large is connected by the experience of watching them and will be talking about them for weeks to come. And regardless if you give the brand your money or swear them off for life, you still know who they are. And to them, that is priceless.

view all blogs