Super Bowl LVI will draw sports fans and music fans alike this Sunday, but Brock consumer culture expert Derek Foster has his own reasons for tuning in.
The Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film says the Super Bowl is truly fascinating for anyone interested in media and advertising.
“With the ascendency of digital and social advertising and an increasingly fragmented media landscape, the Super Bowl is significant,” he says. “It has held onto its advertising clout even in the face of increasing media competition and scandals rocking the reputation of the game, but it also shows how advertisers leverage digital media and grow transmedia audiences.”
Foster says the world’s fascination with Super Bowl commercials dropped into high gear after 1984, when Apple placed Apple Mac: 1984, a short film directed by Ridley Scott.
“This was widely touted as changing the game — pun intended — and auguring an age of tuning in to the big game for not just the football or the halftime entertainment, but the commercial filler in between plays,” he says.
By 2021, prestige ads filled 57 minutes of airtime during the game, and even with overall viewership of the traditional broadcast in decline, a 30-second ad slot in this Sunday’s game will cost up to US$7 million.
Foster says to see the cultural impact of Super Bowl commercials, we need look no further than our own backyard, where legal disputes between the Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Bell Media over the rights of Canadians to experience American Super Bowl commercials during the broadcast made it to the Supreme Court.
“The American broadcast on Canadian airwaves had long meant Canadian viewers missed out on a lot of the marquee advertisements, as the broadcast signal had traditionally been subject to the CRTC’s mandated policy of simultaneous substitution, requiring Canadian broadcasters to distribute local signals and support the Canadian advertising market,” he says.
But in 2015, the CRTC recognized the ads had become “an integral part” of the Super Bowl and changed its rules.
“For three years, Canadian broadcasting aligned with Canadian popular taste,” says Foster. “But Bell Media fought the ruling at the Supreme Court after seeing a decline in audience share and ad revenue for broadcasts on CTV and TSN, and they won.”
Foster says the ruling has become “increasingly irrelevant” as more audiences move away from traditional broadcasts of the event. Last year saw the lowest Super Bowl ratings in 14 years.
“Strategies to reach audiences are no longer limited to television and sometimes they exclude it altogether, engaging with audiences via digital platforms and other interactive channels,” he says. “Where people once upon a time tuned in to the game to check out the most expensive airtime of the year, today ads are frequently shared online early to build buzz — some even have teasers — and the ads become part of an overall marketing strategy that focuses increasingly on digital footprints.”
Advertisers have taken note of studies showing that up to three-quarters of Super Bowl viewers use social media while watching, according to Foster. The NFL itself will air its own ads during the game to suggest that younger fans find them on Snapchat, and kids playing Fortnite can adopt skins for all 32 NFL teams.
“So, we see some advertisers buying airtime but also creating digital campaigns, while others, such as State Farm, which only aired its first Super Bowl ad in 2021, announced this year it is bypassing the traditional on-air spot in favour of extending engagement beyond the one day by creating a #TeamStateFarm challenge on TikTok,” says Foster.
More than anything else, Foster is looking forward to seeing if any of the ads this year take on a self-reflective quality.
“I’m curious to see if they might lampoon the nature of Super Bowl advertising while also leaning in,” says Foster. “One of my recent favourites was the 2018 Tide ad that appropriated the tropes of stereotypical Super Bowl commercials to become both a masterful commentary on and example of the genre.”