The Future of Super Bowl Ads Doesn’t Include TV—or Football

From press-generating live musicals to viral tweets, brands are figuring out that they can get a lot more than 30 seconds for their money. Skittles

This Super Bowl Sunday, as football fans gather for pre-game festivities, musical theater enthusiasts will have their own spectacle to appreciate: a one-time-only performance at famed downtown NYC theater Joe’s Pub, starring actor and Broadway star Dexter ’s Michael C. Hall. The production, written by Pulitzer-finalist playwright Will Eno, is an anti-consumerist allegory, filled with songs like “ Advertising Ruins Everything ,” which bemoans contemporary evils like spam and targeted Instagram ads. As strange as this all sounds, though, it gets weirder. The play? It’s called Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical .

That’s right. Skittles’ 2019 Super Bowl commercial is not only not during the Super Bowl, it’s not televised at all. It’s not even an ad: It’s a live musical skewering its own industry. But it’s very much in keeping with recent shifts in the marketing world. Running an ad during the Super Bowl used to be pinnacle of American marketing prestige, but in an age when Super Bowl viewership is slipping and even avid watchers are splitting their attention between the game and the conversation about the game on social media, appealing to the internet has become more important than crafting a sizzling 30-second TV spot. And brands know that. Which is why every year, Super Bowl “commercials” look less like traditional advertisements and more like made-to-be-memed viral campaigns that do best and live longest on the web.

Arguably, it started six years ago, when a power outage plunged the Super Bowl into darkness, and Oreo seized the moment.

https://twitter.com/oreo/status/298246571718483968

By now the cringey meme-seeking of Big Brand Twitter is so familiar that we’d probably just scroll by, but at the time, this was a headline-worthy move—one taken as an early sign that the sun might be setting on the supremacy of that primest of prime-time TV spots.

And that trend only continued. “Super Bowl strategy is no longer limited to television,” says Abbey Klaassen, New York president of 360i, the agency behind that viral Oreo tweet. “Or even necessarily includes it.”

By 2016, brands as big as Gatorade and Nike were opting to sit on the bleachers rather than spend $5 million on a 30-second ad—then a record-breaking price. A year later, companies like Taco Bell and Toyota followed suit; experts cited a variety of factors , from the ballooning price to the economic uncertainty of the Trump era.

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And last year, a new factor emerged: the ideological minefields that the NFL and larger society had become. Advertisers feared that the Super Bowl had turned from unifying crowdpleaser to a very expensive front in the culture wars—a feeling that the Colin Kaepernick protest and blacklisting scandal only intensified : Honda and Snickers sat out, as did celebrities like Rihanna and Amy Schumer . In 2019, Skittles’ edgelord move isn’t the only effort to skirt the machine: Even Super Bowl mainstay Coca-Cola is eschewing a game-time spot (the company is running a pro-diversity ad before kickoff instead).

But just because these companies aren’t running Super Bowl commercials doesn’t mean they’re sequestering themselves from what Skittles brand director Debbie Litow calls “the Super Bowl moment.” Even among brands that do run game-time ads, the growing internet grab has steadily stretched that moment out and made it less and less football-centric: It’s now totally normal to see Super Bowl ads on YouTube one or two weeks before (and after) kickoff, which helps defray their cost. Agencies like 360i drill their staff on brand’s voice and sensibility so they can tweetstorm as Oreos or Ford or Doritos at a moment’s notice.

Made-to-go-viral, buzz-extending stunts have also become commonplace. This year, Pizza Hut is planning on delivering a year of free pizza to the first baby born during the Super Bowl. What Skittles (and other Super Bowl-spurning brands, but mostly Skittles) is doing is just taking this multiplatform trend to its logical extreme, at which point they can abandon the least productive of those platforms—primetime broadcast television.

Pivoting toward the internet offers these brands more than just a cheaper way to extend their reach—there’s more data, too. “If I run a televised Budweiser ad, I can’t measure who then went out and bought a case of beer,” says David Warschawski, CEO and founder of the Warschawski agency. “When it’s hard to show the ROI, why would you do it? Online is much more targeted, and every click moves the consumer down the funnel towards purchases.”

Again, Skittles is taking that move one step further, gathering real-time feedback from their targeted audience. No one’s reacting to the play’s poster? Draw up a new one. People don’t like the tone of an advertisement? Change it. ”It’s really nimble and iterative,” Litow says. “We literally adjust the campaign as we go.” This way, brands make sure they’re spending their money on the right eyeballs, and can lean into the meme if and when one materializes.

But the appeal of the internet doesn’t end with pure business concerns. Moving away from Super Bowl game time and toward social media is also a cultural decision. While perennial advertisers like Budweiser and Dodge have a long-forged relationship with football, other brands retain a polite ambivalence toward the sport. “We have a great partnership with the NFL, and their brand is intrinsic to football,” Litow says. “But the linkage between Skittles and football is less natural.” (“Skittles: The Musical” compounds that ambivalence this year by devoting its songs to a meta-commentary on the icky consumerism of the whole affair.)

Other brands are making money by lobbing more explicit criticisms. The WWE is making hay out of the Super Bowl’s legacy of ridiculed, often irrelevant halftime shows to promote its own counterprogramming: Half-Time Heat. “Some advertisers have begun to want their ad to be rejected,” Warschawski says. “It used to be you’d ask the network how you could fix it, but now you can get as much social media juice out of being banned.” This year’s entrant in the Too Edgy For the Bowl sweepstakes: Acreage Cannabis, a medical marijuana company, whose ad was a lineup of tearjerker stories about a sick child, an opioid addict, and a veteran amputee. It’s the perfect sappy Super Bowl ad, except for the weed part—and Acreage wants to lean into the NFL’s predictable discomfort.

The world has changed a lot since 1984, when Apple’s blockbuster Super Bowl commercial introduced the Macintosh as the antidote to an Orwellian future and catapulted the brand to superstardom. Now television is an optional part of the strategy, and even using the Super Bowl’s star power against it is part of the game. To advertisers, it seems, the game itself is no longer an event—it’s an excuse.

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