Best Super Bowl ad this year? Publicity

Updated: Apr 28

The winner of this year’s Super Bowl ad contest wasn’t an ad at all – it was publicity.

While 56 brands dropped a cool $5.5 million each on slick 30-second productions designed to gain attention for their products, Budweiser outperformed the lot – even after leaving the Clydesdales in the stable.

Instead of paying for production costs and air time, Budweiser brand managers executed a pure publicity play, issuing a press release announcing that their Super Bowl marketing budget would instead be diverted to ads supporting COVID vaccine awareness.

It worked. Attention to the Budweiser brand rose by nearly 40% during the Super Bowl news cycle, according to YouGov BrandIndex tracking data. The increase in Attention was significantly higher than every other brand considered to have aired a top ad during the game.

Why is this a big deal? What are the implications for managing headline risk? Stick with me here.

Advertisers have long known the value of integrated marketing. Ad campaigns are routinely launched with press releases. Marketers hope to catch that added boost of attention generated from news coverage. News is consumed actively. Ads are consumed passively. Quite simply, news catches people's attention.

In the case of the Super Bowl, ad campaigns typically begin a full two weeks before kick-off, as marketers issue press releases to tease their 30-second spots, often steering people toward the ad footage posted online. The press releases trigger a news cycle in the traditional press and an echo online that can last for weeks.

And the Super Bowl ad game does not end with the trophy presentation. For the next two weeks, the press opines on the winner of the best ad. Bragging rights – and marketing budgets – are at stake.

In a similar study we conducted a few years back, virtually all of the lift in attention for Super Bowl ads covered in the news occurred before kick off. And the lift typically lasted for another two or three weeks as the news and social media promote their favorite ads.

That pattern held this year as well. Several of the top ads identified by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School Super Bowl ratings system experienced elevated attention levels both before and after the game. But what had been a long tail seems to have shortened from about a month to about a week.

By comparison. Budweiser attention levels according to YouGov rose steadily following their January 25th press release, peaking the day before the game. The post-game coverage triggered a second spike, and the elevated attention levels have since been reverting back to pre-campaign levels. All in, the publicity generated more than a month of lift.

In managing headline risk, it’s critical to understand how media reaches and influences people, affects reputation, and impacts sales. Especially in a crisis.

Here’s a timely example. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, two game-day advertisers – Robinhood and Reddit – had bigger issues to manage. Both social media firms were preparing to send CEOs to Capitol Hill to testify about their respective roles in the GameStop short squeeze.

Following last week's Congressional hearing, attention to the two brands have spiked to levels well beyond anything generated from this year's Super Bowl ads. In fact, while marketers fortunate enough to work for national brands may experience a Super Bowl once a year, risk managers working for companies covered by the national press routinely manage events with much greater spikes in attention.

Now consider this. How much time, effort and resources do companies put into a Super Bowl ad campaign? In comparison, how much time, effort and resources do companies put into managing headline risk?

One final irony. Budweiser is sending a check covering its Super Bowl avoided costs to the Ad Council to fund public service announcements promoting COVID vaccine awareness.

Looking to optimize that spend? Maybe the funding should be used to back a publicity campaign instead.

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