For five decades, the Super Bowl has been synonymous with “big” — big stakes, big hype and big ratings, topping 114 million viewers in 2016. It’s those massive viewership numbers that drive huge price tags for 30-second Super Bowl commercial spots.
Advertisers eyeing Super Bowl LI — that’s 51, for the less Roman-numeral-fluent among us — will find that airtime prices have doubled over the last 10 years. And while Super Bowl commercials still generate buzz, it’s worth asking whether the investment is worth the cost in a world that seems to be moving farther away from the television set each year.
Here’s a breakdown of the commercial costs. Your eyes won’t believe what you can buy for the price of a halftime ad.
Cost of a Super Bowl Commercial Over the Years
When the game made its debut in 1967, a Super Bowl ad could be had for what now seems like the modest price of $42,000. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $301,805 worth of buying power in today’s market. But the big game isn’t content to keep pace with inflation — far from it, in fact. In 2016, CBS raked in $5 million per 30-second Super Bowl commercial. That breaks down to $166,666 per second of airtime. You read that right — the cost of an ad in Super Bowl I couldn’t even buy you a second of airtime at Super Bowl 50.
With a few exceptions, each year has shown a rise in the cost of a Super Bowl commercial, which broke the $1 million mark in 1995. Here’s an abbreviated look of how it breaks down:
|Year||Cost of a 30-Second Ad|
|*Costs sourced from the Associated Press. These figures are true costs for the associated years, not adjusted for inflation.|
How Brands Benefit From Super Bowl Commercials
The cost of a Super Bowl commercial is staggering. But, even with the advent of Super Bowl streaming online, the event’s live TV viewership numbers just can’t be beat. From 2010 through 2016, the game has set the record for America’s most-watched television broadcast. Those numbers just about guarantee that your brand gets seen by the millions of people hoping to see their team win the Super Bowl.
Interestingly, though, AdvertisingAge reports that 80 percent of all Super Bowl ads do not increase purchases or purchase intent, while MarketingLand notes that 90 percent of viewers are unlikely to buy something because of a Super Bowl ad’s influence.
However, brands naturally see stronger results when there’s less competition. As the exclusive rights holder to Super Bowl beer commercials for more than 20 years, Anheuser-Busch earns about $96 million from their ads, netting a return on their investment of 172 percent, according to a Stanford University study. On the other hand, when two major brands in the same category advertise during a single Super Bowl, neither brand is likely to gain a profit.
But sales might not actually be the point. Instead, the key lies in brand awareness. Super Bowl ads have become a cultural touchstone. Much of their power lies in boosting brand favorability and inserting the advertisers into the cultural conversation. And unlike sales figures, those are incredibly important aspects that can’t be easily quantified.
2017 Super Bowl Ad Costs and Beyond
For Super Bowl 51, Fortune reports that Fox is asking for $5 million to $5.5 million per spot, or double the price of 2006 ads. As of late January, the network has only booked 90 percent of their spots. In years past, Super Bowl advertising airtime was typically completely booked up to four months out from the event.
Brands must also factor in the costs outside of booking 30 seconds of prime TV. The best Super Bowl ads have been iconic, and advertisers know it — so much so that the production of a Super Bowl commercial can easily exceed $1 million. Once corresponding coverage on platforms like Facebook and YouTube is added to the total, a Super Bowl ad campaign can easily end up costing $10 million or more.
Despite the Super Bowl’s reputation as a Shangri-La for commercials, it’s not a sure bet. Companies like Nationwide and Groupon have come out of their investments with damaged brands because of provocative commercials, while the explosion of digital media raises more uncertainty. Now that Twitter’s offering a free broadcast of the game to its more than 800 million registered users, brands have to ask themselves if a huge, multimillion-dollar TV spot is still the best use of their cash.
In 2017’s advertising landscape, buying a Super Bowl ad is a bit like betting on the outcome of the game itself; there’s just as much potential for devastating loss as there is for phenomenal gain.