Get Your Popcorn Ready: Are Super Bowl Movie Trailers Worth the Cost?

Jan 30, 2017

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By Scott Barsotti

Heinz College professor Michael D. Smith offers insight into how Super Bowl ads affect Hollywood releases

In 1967, when the first Super Bowl was played between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs, a 30-second spot cost advertisers $42,000. In 2016, during Super Bowl 50, that same airtime cost $5 million. The exorbitant cost makes sense: The Super Bowl is the most watched television event in the United States, comprising 19 of the top 20 U.S. broadcasts by viewership ever recorded.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer of these mass culture-shaping events out there,” said Michael D. Smith, Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Heinz College.

Smith added that the Super Bowl is unique not only because of its ratings share, but because it’s a broadcast during which people actually want to watch the commercials.

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The Super Bowl is one of the last remaining ways to reach a mass audience, all at the same time, with an iconic ad that people are going to be talking about the next day

Michael D. Smith

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Super Bowl commercials have become their own subset of Americana. They are a part of Americans’ shared experience, with truly transcendent spots crossing over into the popular lexicon. Some of the most memorable ads of all time first aired during the Super Bowl, like Apple’s riff on “1984,” Volkswagen’s Darth Vader kid, and seminal entries too-numerous-to-list from Budweiser, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola.

Then, in 1996, there was this...shall we say…bombshell:

The president’s approval rating among aliens was extremely low (via GIPHY)

The teaser for the alien invasion flick Independence Day electrified viewers of Super Bowl XXX with images of hulking spacecraft, mass hysteria, and the White House being blown apart by a gargantuan energy beam. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, Independence Day became the most hotly anticipated movie of the summer, kicking off a resurgence of big-budget science fiction and disaster films. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1996, topping $817 million worldwide during its theatrical run.

Since then, summer blockbusters and other major studio releases have invested in trailers during the Super Bowl. But was Independence Day a phenomenon unto itself, or do movies that drop teasers during TV’s biggest night tend to see a return on that investment?

Movies see a Super Bowl bump

Smith and his collaborators analyzed movies that placed ads during Super Bowl broadcasts from 2004-2014, 70 movies in total.

Mike smith resize square

Michael D. Smith, Heinz College faculty member

What they found is that, on average, movies saw an $8.4 million increase in their opening weekend box office by investing $3 million in a Super Bowl ad.

They were able to link these increases in sales to Super Bowl ads by examining box office data in cities whose teams played in that year’s matchup. Historically, when a team qualifies for the Super Bowl, there is a roughly 20 percent viewership spike in that team’s local market. At the same time, Super Bowl ad space sells out many weeks to months in advance of the game, meaning firms must commit to buying the airtime well before it is known which teams will be playing.

Smith and company reported that, in the areas of the country represented in the Super Bowl, there was a swell in both opening weekend box office revenue as well as Google searches related to movies advertised during the game.

Several years ago, Randall Lewis and Justin Rao of Yahoo! Research put forth their “Super Bowl Impossibility Theorem." They called into question the ability to quantify the impact of a single Super Bowl ad at all, supposing that a firm large enough to afford a Super Bowl ad would typically have baseline sales so high that it makes ROI from a single ad impossible to infer.

Smith says this research offers an exception to that theory because of the ability to measure the effectiveness of 70 different campaigns for movies that were advertised during the Super Bowl.

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On average, movies saw an $8.4 million increase in their opening weekend box office by investing $3 million in a Super Bowl ad

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This Sunday, there will be plenty of drama on the field, with the perennially proficient New England Patriots gunning for a fifth Lombardi Trophy against an upstart Atlanta Falcons team looking to secure its first championship in franchise history. Millions of diehard football fans will tune in to see two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL go drive-for-drive.

At the same time, millions of other viewers couldn’t care less what those guys do, and will instead watch the broadcast for the pomp, spectacle, and (hopefully) some of the most compelling and creative advertisements of the year.

Smith says this research is evidence that mass channels still drive performance, but adds that cord-cutting—the trend of consumers ditching cable TV providers in favor of on-demand streaming services—is making certain key demographics harder to reach. In this landscape, the Super Bowl presents a rare opportunity.

“The Super Bowl is one of the last remaining ways to reach a mass audience, all at the same time, with an iconic ad that people are going to be talking about the next day,” said Smith.

No matter why people watch the Big Game, it’s a lot of eyeballs at attention. Studios that can deliver a gripping 30 seconds will find that it’s well worth the cost.

Original artwork by Joseph Mallonee

Read more about Professor Smith's book Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment, a collaboration with Professor Rahul Telang>>

Read more about the MISM program>>

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