Super Bowl Sunday: How it all ads up

By Maureen Hartwell, Staff Writer

With the 2019 Super Bowl just days away, some Americans anticipate a great football game or halftime show. But many look forward to an even bigger event — watching the ads.

This year, host network CBS charged companies $5.25 million for a 30-second advertisement. This amounts to nearly $175,000 per second of airtime.

Whether it’s Budweiser knights, Dorito battles featuring Morgan Freeman or a discreet Tide ad, Americans await these celebrations of corporate advertising every February. Calum Matheson, a Pitt communication professor, said this engagement of the American populace is strategic.

“Even the ones that are funny or don’t make a direct pitch to sell a product, all of them are based in some way on an effort to persuade the audience to do something that they wouldn’t otherwise do,” Matheson said. “Buy a product, support a cause, whatever it is.”

But according to Paul Johnson of Pitt’s communication department, companies have a goal beyond pushing the brand during game’s airing. He said the advertising doesn’t need an intrinsic connection with what the brand does.

Instead, Johnson said, it’s about getting people to think about the brand, even if the content of the advertisement seems irrelevant to the product sold.

“Even if your coffee has nothing to do with unicorns at all, maybe there will be a unicorn in the ad because the company thinks that unicorns will be particularly resonant this year for whatever reason,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the companies structure their ads in a way that gives them a second life through the news media, which allow for prolonged conversation about the ads. According to Eugenia Wu of Pitt’s business school, modern companies employ two themes when constructing their ads: humor and political awareness.

Nicole Coleman of Pitt’s business school said for years the tactic for targeting the audience has been humor. But recently, Coleman said, political awareness and controversy are the ways to keep the conversation going.

“You want your brand continually referred to. Not just by people talking over the water cooler the next day but by having the press, the free marketing that comes after,” Coleman said. “You’re not going to get that if you’re doing a humorous ad — you have to do something more risky.”

Matheson said companies consider what the ads accomplish, what kind of arguments they make and what kind of messages they contain before airing them. He also said companies analyze what their audiences look like in terms of social awareness.

But Johnson said companies sometimes miss the mark on how socially aware their consumers are. For this reason, Johnson said, companies can often be viewed as imposing their beliefs upon their consumers.

“If the ads are ‘woke,’ does that mean the marketing is telling these companies the average American is more liberal in their social attitude than we assume? Or are the advertisers potentially alienating some consumers because they see the future — do they think that’s where the money is?” Johnson said.

Johnson said, in his view, the American consumer is still rather conservative but companies feel an increasing obligation to demonstrate their social conscience, causing a bit of tension. Since the Super Bowl is a uniquely American game, Coleman said the content also has a lot of patriotic themes.

“The past couple of years, there have been interesting riffs on patriotism. But what does patriotism mean nowadays given the political minefield we are in?” Coleman said.

According to Johnson, this patriotism can mean orchestrated displays showing support for the troops. Johnson said evidence in communication research shows that the government makes contracts with the NFL to organize these recent presentations.

“The flyovers and displays of patriotism featuring support for the troops are actually organized public relations campaigns coordinated between the NFL and the military,” Johnson said.

In fact, a 2015 oversight report showed the Department of Defense paid professional sports teams for displays to honor American soldiers.

Johnson said this affiliation plays into the warlike similarities between football and the military. He said since football is a violent game, it has been associated with masculinity in the same way the military has.

But Matheson said it’s difficult to pinpoint whether rhetoricians associate the Super Bowl with war because of militaristic similarities or the mere fact that both battles and sports are outgrowths of competition.

“It’s a really popular thing in rhetoric to talk about war as a fundamental metaphor for other things,” Matheson said. “The Super Bowl makes that a little complicated because it’s hard to say which metaphor comes first.”

Though this comparison is not fact among all rhetoricians, Matheson said what they do agree on is how corporations view the unparalleled audience size of the Super Bowl. Matheson said companies take advantage of this to draw in audiences that traditionally wouldn’t watch a football game.

“Really, the Super Bowl is a giant advertisement — it’s an advertisement for the NFL, it’s an advertisement for the people who do halftime shows, it’s an advertisement for the products and companies that sponsor people,” Matheson said.

As unique as this phenomenon is in the modern context, Matheson said this isn’t the first time advertising itself has become an attraction. Pointing to 1800s businessmen like P.T. Barnum and Clark Stanley, who were famous for the circus and snake oil, respectively, Matheson said ads have kept audiences engaged for decades now.

Johnson, too, said the exploitation of audiences through ads isn’t a new concept. He said this notion really took off in the 1980s, an era he described as one of intensified consumerist materialism.

“The ’80s is this first convergence between football as one of the central sports in America and the heavy marketing approach to a consumerist spectacle,” Johnson said.

Matheson described the Super Bowl as the modern incarnation of these old ideas, noting that the ads are best understood as part of a long context of advertising and sales. He also said no money spent on advertising can be bad because it’s hard to quantify the effects of an advertisement.

Coleman said some companies this year are in the spotlight to maintain their reputations.

She said all eyes will be on Gillette in light of its recent commercial on healthy masculinity and Nike due to its Colin Kaepernick commercial. And every company will work to promote its image.

“But it’s not really just about the money from the ads. It’s about reputation, it’s about maintaining a bigger system,” Matheson said.