Like it or not, Super Bowl commercials have become an integral part of American pop culture. In the past 50 years, commercials have spawned feature films, as in the Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny Nike ad's transformation into "Space Jam"; popularised slang, like that several year period where everyone was shouting "Whassup!"; and inspired a top 10 radio hit with Coca-Cola's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."
As friends and families gather at the homes with the largest big screens tonight to watch the big game, the commercials will find a key point in the postgame Monday-morning conversations. According to Deborah Vance, associate professor in the communication and cinema department at McDaniel College, this pop relevance has been purposefully cultivated by the ad agencies and companies behind these 30-second films.
"They're targeting the Super Bowl with some of their most clever work that uses a lot of humor, knowing the audience will be in a festive mood," Vance said. "Part of the success is just the buzz around it. People talk about it both in the lead-up to and following the event itself. They're presenting their best work to the largest audience they have."
The price for an ad at Super Bowl 50 will run companies $5 million for 30 seconds of screen time, an 11 percent jump from last year's price tag of $4.5 million. At the first Super Bowl in 1967, a 30-second commercial cost companies a mere $40,000, about $284,000 in today's dollars for the television spot.
The cost has increased steadily each year, with only a few minor exceptions. Following a dramatic increase from 1999 to 2000, jumping from $1.6 million to $2.1 million in a single year, the price ended up falling in both 2001 and 2002, bottoming out at $1.9 million. The next Super Bowl in 2003 would finally return the price of an ad to the high set in the year 2000.
One of the reasons for the increased cost of screentime is the ever-increasing viewership. In 1967, about 56 million people in the U.S. tuned in to watch the first Super Bowl — which was actually officially called the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game. It was also the only Super Bowl to be aired on two competing networks, NBC and CBS.
According to Nielsen records, from 1992 to 2008, between 80 million to 90 million U.S. viewers watched each year. In 2009, viewership broke 100 million viewers, never to dip below that line again. Last year's Super Bowl was the most watched program in U.S. television history, with an average of 114.4 million viewers in the U.S. watching, and peaking at 120.8 million.
Vance said the key to a commercial isn't explaining what the product is for an audience, but rather adding a dimension to the product that is going to resonate with the viewers.
"What is being sold in the commercial is a feeling. When you watch the commercial and hear the music and see the images and appreciate the humor, you're feeling these emotions toward the brand," Vance said. "In the minds of advertisers, what you're feeling is an added value to the product. If you think a commercial is clever or heartwarming, than you think the company is clever or heartwarming."
In the Internet age, watching the game is no longer a requirement to participate in the water-cooler talk about the biggest ads of the year. About 30 companies released their commercials online in advance of Super Bowl Sunday, allowing fans to pick their favorites before ever attending their Super Bowl parties.
As in recent years, celebrities are a big draw for some of the most popular brands, with Ryan Reynolds, Christopher Walken, Scott Baio, Liam Neeson, Serena Williams, T-Pain, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Janelle Monae, Willem Dafoe and the image of Marilyn Monroe all putting in appearances this year.
Movie trailers will be a bigger draw this year than last, with Disney purchasing several slots including a promised trailer for Jon Favreau's live-action adaptation of "The Jungle Book." Paramount will premiere a trailer for the sequel to the latest "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" reboot.
Fox will attempt to interest football fans in ski-jumping as they promote their film "Eddie the Eagle," starring Hugh Jackman. The other film it'll be promoting hasn't been identified yet, but considering the iconic effectiveness of the "Independence Day" Super Bowl trailer in 1996, and the summer release date for the sequel this year, "Independence Day: Resurgence" seems likely.
According to Vance, audiences don't have to take advertisements at face value. She said watching a commercial is no different than having a discussion with somebody "with a very loud voice."
"You can reject it, accept it, like it or hate it, just like you would any other conversation," Vance said. "Once you start thinking that commercials are coming from individuals trying to say something to us, the more we are in charge of the effects — especially with something as insidious as commercials."