Well, it’s that time of the year again. The time when, for four hours, Americans’ eyes turn not only to the big game, but to the television commercials that play between the plays (heretofore referred to as a “spot” or “spots”). In other words, the glorious 1/6th of one day of the year when people actually admit to watching TV commercials.

Getting Attention Without a Super Bowl Ad

Since so many eyes are glued to the spots that are running during the big game, it occurred to me that we ought to try to break down what makes a good spot during the big game. And since I have made approximately one zillion TV spots in my career, I also figured, why not me?

NOTE: Full disclosure, I have never made a Super Bowl spot. Nor have I actually made “one zillion” spots.

So, here is the fruit of that labor. Here is the anatomy of a great Super Bowl spot. Here are the things you need:

1. $7-20 million dollars.

No matter how you slice it, it seems the big brands shy away from taking big chances during the big game. Instead they rely on reprises, sequels, and the reimagining of classic characters and properties.

This year, you need $5 million big ones to purchase just 30 seconds of time to run your spot. OK, so that’s a lot. But you also need a big budget to produce a big spot for this big stage. Based on a quick run through of last year’s top spots, I ballparked production of the spots to be at least $1 million apiece. I mean, when you cast Peyton Manning, Iggy Azalea, or Jeff Goldblum (with T-Rex) to be in your spot, you are already off and spending money.

And when you consider the digital animation, multiple transcontinental locations, and plenty of actors and extras, you’re really making short films rather than spots. And that takes money. Lots of it.

*Many of the spots I looked at were 60s, which means that they cost $10 mill, just for the time.

2. Something or somebody everybody has seen before.

It also became apparent that, much like Hollywood’s love affair with existing properties and sequels, the big game spots were not different. It’s what we in the business call “borrowed interest.” I already mentioned Jeff Goldblum reprising his role from “Jurassic Park.” And Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth did a send up of a (fake) sequel to “Crocodile Dundee.” This year, we’re getting a dose of Jeff Bridges reprising his classic role of The Dude from 1998’s (!) “The Big Lebowski.”

No matter how you slice it, it seems the big brands shy away from taking big chances during the big game. Instead they rely on reprises, sequels, and the reimagining of classic characters and properties.

3. The anthropomorphizing of animals.

It would not be a Super Bowl without talking frogs, football-playing Clydesdales, and other humanized animals. Off the top of my head, I can remember that Marmot once had a marmot in the spot. And virtually all the Doritos spots that have crashed the ad agency’s party the past few years have been heavy on animals. And how can any of us forget Mountain Dew’s “Puppy Monkey Baby” spot from 2016? If you don’t remember, watch it so that it can be forever burned into your psyche.

To be fair, there have been some very memorable animal spots in the canon of great Super Bowl ads. There have also been some pretty rough ones.

To be fair, there have been some very memorable animal spots in the canon of great Super Bowl ads. There have also been some pretty rough ones. Something like a talking wildebeest is no guarantee that you will rate as one of the top spots, but a talking wildebeest? Who wouldn’t want to see that?

4. Crowd-sourced ideas.

Another thing that is very popular for SB spots the past few years is crowdsourcing ideas from outside the agency roster. Starting in 2006, Doritos created “Crash the Super Bowl” and crowdsourced 10 years of spots. In my opinion, there were some clear winners in that time (“Time Machine”) and some clear losers (“Baby’s First Word” Note: I forgot talking babies. Talking babies are BIG). Either way, the idea of crashing the big game was, to my mind, bigger than the spots themselves. And it got Dorito’s a ton of play in the run-up discussions about the spots.

Dorito’s—and most other brands these days—release their spots out into the world prior to game day, thereby getting themselves earned media and PR before and after the fact. It diminishes the surprise and delight of seeing the spot cold during the game, but it makes for a higher ROI when you can push your content out prior to the spot actually running for the “first” time.

5. A movie or TV show to promote.

Almost every year, there are a LOT of spots devoted to the new shows that are coming out on whatever network has the game that year. And the movie studios spend a LOT of money getting the trailers for the summer’s big blockbusters in front of our February eyeballs. No matter who is playing in the game (read: Tom Brady), you can count on seeing some big movie previews and being inundated with the same promo for “This is Us” or “New Cop/Doctor show.” It’s a pattern that is not too hard to predict.

Watch the spots with the rest of the country, decide which ones you liked and didn’t like, and then get on with it.

So, what does it all mean?

  • It’s risky to do a Super Bowl spot.
    It costs a bunch of money and everybody judges everything about your commercial. And then USA Today and a bunch of people rate your spot and there’s a winner or a loser. Yikes. Pretty tough way to spend the equivalent of some brand’s entire marketing budgets. This exercise is not for the faint of heart.
  • Certain categories are more represented than others.
    There are always soda spots. There are always car spots. There are always beer spots. If you are in those categories, maybe you can pull a Dorito’s and create an idea that isn’t a spot, which becomes your spot. And if you are in non-represented categories, maybe you can make a big splash by burning your budget. (In 1974, Master Lock spent nearly their whole marketing budget on this spot. It got them a ton of return on that investment, and they became Super Bowl legends to boot.)
  • It’s a big day for advertising, but the next day, things go back to normal.
    If you are a marketer, you surely know there is value in a big message on a big day in front of a lot of eyeballs. But if you’re working Sunday, you also know that 1:1 marketing is a huge part of what we do, and a Super Bowl spot is not personalized, or directed to a tight audience. It could make a big splash, but it might not. And after you have been celebrated (or vilified) for your spot’s performance, you have to get right back into your office and start using strategy, creativity, and technology to sell the products and services of the brands you represent.

Move Over Brands, Consumer Experiences Are the Story

So, watch the spots with the rest of the country, decide which ones you liked and didn’t like, and then get on with it. Just pray that the Patriots lose.

Finally, here are my top three SB spots of all time. One man’s opinion, no discussion needed. Cheers.

Tug’s Top 3 Super Bowl Spots

Apple “1984”

Monster.com “When I Grow Up”

FedEx “We Apologize”

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