A $4 million Super Bowl ad’s greatest enemy? Snacks

Super Bowl commercials are hot properties, but eating and watching sports – the two main Super Bowl activities – can reduce viewers' susceptibility to advertising, according to studies. So are companies shelling out millions for Super Bowl airtime really getting their money's worth? 

AP Photo/Nationwide/File
A portion of insurance company Nationwide's ad featuring Mindy Kaling scheduled to run during Super Bowl XLIX. People are less susceptible to messages conveyed through advertising when they were eating, according to a recent study, a potential problem for companies running commercials on snack-heavy Super Bowl Sunday.

A commercial slot during the Super Bowl is, it’s no secret, the hottest property in all of advertising. A 30-second spot during this year’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots costs north of $4 million. But is it really worth it?

Let's get this out of the way quickly: Yes, for a lot of reasons we’ll get to later, a commercial in the Super Bowl is extremely valuable. But as NPR pointed out earlier this week, some studies suggest that the big game presents major difficulties for advertisers trying to get their ultra-pricey ads to translate to sales.

First off, to convince you to buy their products, companies have to get past your famous game day nachos. A psychological study from the University of Wuerzburg in Germany found people were less susceptible to messages conveyed through advertising when they were eating. “Commercials for foreign brands were shown in cinema sessions while participants either ate popcorn, chewed gum [experimenters called this “oral interference”] or consumed a single sugar cube,” an abstract of the study reads. The control group, the sugar cube eaters, responded more to brands they had seen advertised, while the popcorn/gum people weren’t affected by the ads at all. “Advertising might be futile under ecological situations involving oral interference, such as snacking or talking, which ironically is often the case,” researchers concluded.

And good luck finding a nonsnacker watching the game: Americans buy and consume more food on Super Bowl Sunday than any other holiday except Thanksgiving. An estimated $143 billion will be spent by those celebrating, and about 80 percent of that will be on food, according to the National Retail Federation.

Another problem: In proportion to the high cost, viewers may buy less in response to commercials that run during major sporting events than they do from ads that run during other types of programming. That’s according to another study, from the marketing department at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, that analyzed hundreds of brands in the United Kingdom that ran TV spots during events like the World Cup and the Olympics. Researchers theorized that “being in sort of the hyper-excited state that people are as they're watching these big sporting events might not actually make you very conducive to processing the content of the ads,” according to NPR.

So, should Pepsi, Ford, and the rest abandon their costly Super Bowl spots? Not necessarily. Even with all that distracting sports and eating going on, the Super Bowl is still consistently the highest-rated TV program of the year – last year’s game drew in 108.6 million viewers, a record. It’s also the biggest event in live sports, which, with the rise of DVR and on-demand programming, is one of the only areas of TV programming that still delivers a captive audience for commercials.

It’s also the only event on TV where the commercials count as part of the entertainment, not an interruption. About half of viewers watch the Super Bowl solely for the commercials and halftime show; this year, Dish Network even launched a service that lets viewers skip over the football and watch only the ads. In recent years, many companies have begun releasing their Super Bowl ads early online – just by virtue of being Super Bowl ads, this means they get talked about for an extra week or so. For companies looking to burnish their brand’s reputation, or even present a new image to the world, there’s no quicker way to do it.

“The Super Bowl is one the safest bets I’ve ever seen,” Rob Siltanen, an advertising agency executive, wrote in Forbes Thursday. “What other venue better assures that people are going to watch your commercial or talk about your brand more than being on the Super Bowl? What other venue says you’re a first-rate, big-time, trustworthy brand more than the Super Bowl?”

And to get that level of exposure, as the eye-popping price tag for a Super Bowl ad shows, companies are happy to compete for attention with a few potato chips. 

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