Is a Super Bowl ad really worth the $5 million?

Why SunTrust wanted to spend on a Super Bowl ad: CEO
Why SunTrust wanted to spend on a Super Bowl ad: CEO

The Super Bowl isn't just a big game for NFL players, but for advertisers that want national recognition. Undoubtedly, the game reaches a massive, live audience. But there's debate in marketing circles about whether the price tag is worth the returns.

This year, ads reached a record high of $5 million per 30-second spot for brands seeking national spots, according to several sources.

That price doesn't include the cost of actually creating the ad, the publicity around the ad, and other aspects necessary to create a successful Super Bowl ad campaign. In total, one source said a full big game campaign can cost more than $30 million.

"I've always questioned how valuable it is compared to what you can do with that other $5 million on other kinds of television programs," said Forrester principal analyst Jim Nail.

"If you said to a marketing director or CEO, 'We're going to talk to your customers this year for exactly half a minute. Then we're going to do nothing until maybe next year,' you're betting a lot that everything fires perfectly in that 30 seconds." -Todd Alchin, chief creative strategist, Noble People

Nail said that due to the high price of advertising during the Super Bowl, it may be more effective to buy several ads for a highly rated prime-time series.

It's also important to remember that all the advertisers involved are putting their best foot forward during the Super Bowl, which means it's less likely for your brand to stand out, said Todd Alchin, chief creative strategist and partner for creative media agency Noble People. The brand also has to have the money and resources to commit to more than just advertising during the Super Bowl. Sometimes, Super Bowl agreements include advertising commitments for other events aired on the same network.

"If you said to a marketing director or CEO, 'We're going to talk to your customers this year for exactly half a minute. Then we're going to do nothing until maybe next year,' you're betting a lot that everything fires perfectly in that 30 seconds," Alchin said. "It's not a sound strategy. Marketing needs more repetition and longevity than that. Perhaps it's akin to considering a marriage only on the wedding day."

A still from a SunTrust ad to appear during the Super Bowl.
Source: SunTrust
A still from a SunTrust ad to appear during the Super Bowl.

At the same time, Nail pointed out that the Super Bowl is unique, because it draws a large live audience in an era when consumers widely DVR programming and skip ads. This year's broadcaster, CBS, is trying to make it possible for companies to take advantage of the live audience no matter whether they watch on television or digitally.

For the first time, CBS is allowing national advertisers to purchase both a national TV spot and have their ad appear in real-time during its digital stream on desktops, tablets and through the CBS Sports app. Previous Super Bowls did not bundle the options and did not allow for real-time ads.

Even more than that, the ads are an event in and of themselves, Nail said.

"The ads have become as integral to the program as the game," Nail said. "People are actually paying attention. You have to weigh that."

Market researcher Field Agent said that although its surveys have shown that 39 percent of millennials are "cord cutters" — they don't have cable TV at home — the majority still say they don't want to get rid of their cable subscriptions because of live events like the Super Bowl. On top of that, 97 percent of respondents said they "strongly agree" or "agree" with the statement that they enjoy Super Bowl ads.

The game provides "massive reach in a cluttered world where there is diminished scale," said research firm MoffettNathanson partner Michael Nathanson. "It's even more valuable."

There's one more aspect that may still make the high price of a Super Bowl ad worth it: digital media. Companies can promote their ad before and after the game to a large audience, further spreading the effectiveness of their campaigns. Brands can also build digital platforms to promote the ideas behind their company.

For the first time, SunTrust will this year be advertising during the big game. The bank's ad will focus on getting Americans to make a commitment to better financial health. While the company isn't playing into tried-and-true Super Bowl ad standards, like heartstring-pulling moments or star names to deliver its message, it believes its "Hold Your Breath" ad will resonate during the Feb. 7 Super Bowl 50 broadcast.

"There's a lot of reasons why the Super Bowl is cost-effective for us, and actually more efficient than other mediums because of the visibility you get before, during and after," said SunTrust chief marketing officer Susan Somersille Johnson. "Because we're sparking a conversation, we're trying to get people to take action and take the first step toward financial confidence. The Super Bowl is just one part of a complete package to do that, but it has the loudest voice and biggest reach of any method we'll use."

SunTrust created a website called "onUp" where people can publicly declare their pledges to better their financial help. It also allows them to create their own versions of the Super Bowl ad online, which they can share on platforms like Facebook.

"It would not justify the investment without the digital component," Somersille Johnson said. "We're doing something a little different. We're not launching a product. We need to get people aware of this issue. … The best way to do that is through the Super Bowl stage with the digital wrapped around it."

Nathanson of MoffettNathanson points out that getting people to participate with a campaign digitally can also give more insights on potential customers.

"Most (companies) will want the combination of digital and TV," he said. "You want to move people to some kind of digital platform for customer acquisition or greater product knowledge. You can use television to drive people to digital."