How the Super Bowl Became the Holy Grail of Media Buying

Media buying refers to the practice of advertisers purchasing the actual form for their messages. It might be airspace on a television or radio network, room in a magazine or newspaper, or, more recently, banners on popular websites. The advertising industry was into advanced metrics before it was hip. The Don Drapers of the world have long been concerned with target audiences, key demographics, and ratings. Getting a message in front of not just many eyeballs, but the right eyeballs, is a precise (and lucrative) science. You don’t need algorithm-based analytics, however, to understand why an ad slot during the Super Bowl is the most coveted and expensive 30 seconds on television.

Media buying during the Super Bowl is an extremely effective way to reach a broad group of people. The game has become an event with people around the country hosting watch parties that frequently draw even non-football fans. Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 had an estimate 114 million viewers making it the most watched television event in American history, topping the record set by the previous year’s game. This increasingly large viewership has allowed the networks airing the game to demand ultra-premium prices for advertising time. The cost of a 30 second slot during the first game in 1967 was $36,500 (about $265,000 in today’s dollars). The cost of a 30 second slot in 2015 averaged a stupefying $4.5 million.

The advertisements have become a cultural phenomenon unto themselves. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people say things like “oh, I just watch for the commercials.” In fact, the cultural significance is part of the reason why the prices are so high. There is no other television event where people talk about the ads at work the next day. There are now whole shows dedicated to analyzing and critiquing the ads (no word on how much a 30 second spot costs during those shows). This echo-chamber effect means that a good plug could potentially be invaluable (and even the bad ones get talked about). A good spot can put a company on the map and some of the best have become icons within the industry.

An early example of an iconic spot is “Mean” Joe Greene’s work for a certain soft drink. Joe Greene throws a jersey to a kid after a game, belying his nickname. While the spot technically aired a few months before, the Super Bowl immortalized it, in part because Joe Greene’s Steelers were playing in (and won) that game. In another now-famous bit, a computer company hired Hollywood director Ridley Scott to make a 60-second commercial that played on George Orwell’s 1984 (not coincidentally, the year it aired) and had hints of Scott’s “Blade Runner.” The wordless, dystopian futurism of the competition was smashed by a sledgehammer wielding runner, the opening salvo in the PC ad wars.

With so many viewers, and so much hype, it’s not hard to see why football’s biggest stage has become the holy grail of media buying.