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When viewers watching the Feb. 12 Super Bowl stick around for the always anticipated commercial breaks, they may find a bit more than they bargained for.
With the advertising market in a downturn (Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said Nov. 15 it was “very weak” and worse than it was during COVID-19 amid a brief, broader pullback), marketers are increasingly looking for partners to mitigate rising costs and to help them stand out on the biggest TV advertising day of the year.
So when Will Ferrell needs to escape a swarm of zombies from the universe of Netflix’s Army of the Dead in the second quarter, he will do so in a General Motors electric pickup truck. When Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man needs to get a refresher before saving the multiverse, he’ll pick up a Heineken 0.0. When Jake from State Farm (actor Kevin Miles) decides to celebrate Arizona’s State Farm Stadium (the host of this year’s game), he’ll turn to TikTok and creator Khaby Lame. Then there’s DraftKings teaming up with Coors for an ad spot asking viewers to predict the content of the ad.
In an era of media austerity, the sharing of resources can go a long way. The cost of admission to the Super Bowl begins at about $10 million, which includes the purchase of an ad slot (Fox Sports, led by CEO Eric Shanks, says 30-second spots sold for “north of $7 million” this year); the production costs required for a high-profile campaign; and paying an A-list star (or three or four). Fox executives say that some marketers that had purchased spots as long as a year ago backed out or asked for relief after the economy veered into uncertainty.
A high-level marketing executive involved with one of the spots this year confirms that their company is sharing costs with their partner brand. But cost is not the only factor at play, of course. Brands want to stand out, and the right partner can make all the difference. “The efficiency argument is pretty compelling, because doing a Super Bowl ad campaign is enormously expensive,” says Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “It’s not just the ad time, it’s everything that goes around it, all the other events, all the other activities, that becomes wildly expensive.”
Consider Netflix, which has in the past purchased ads to promote its movie slate or projects like the documentary series Our Planet. The streamer will not have a stand-alone ad this year, Netflix CMO Marian Lee told reporters at a Feb. 1 news conference. Instead, it is partnering with two Super Bowl regulars, GM and Anheuser-Busch, to incorporate Netflix programming and IP into a GM EV-focused spot starring Ferrell and a Michelob Ultra spot starring Tony Romo. In the beer ad (which has a Caddyshack theme), viewers will be able to scan a QR code off an onscreen image of a can to watch the first episode of the Netflix PGA docuseries Full Swing, whether or not they are a subscriber. And the GM spot will kick off a broader partnership between the streamer and vehicle maker. (Lee says Netflix “does not dictate” how EVs get incorporated into the programs, leaving it up to showrunners or directors to use the fleet as they see fit.)
The idea of brands collaborating for the big game is not new (who can forget when the dragon from HBO’s Game of Thrones torched the “Bud Knight” in 2019?), but it is turbocharged this year, with at least a half-dozen partnerships in the works.
However, teaming on an ad doesn’t have to be driven solely by economics. An entertainment partner can provide a celebrity to star in the ad, for example. And if the right partners come together, marketers agree the impact of the ad can be higher. “Marian and I talked a lot in the beginning: ‘How do we rewrite the marketing playbook?’” says GM CMO Deborah Wahl. “It’s really important for both of our businesses. So I think that’s why you’re seeing this…but it only works when it’s good for both partners and we both get a message across that’s impactful.”
Adds media consultant Brad Adgate, “There’s a Venn diagram, a shaded area that they hope these ads will fall into that is appealing to both brands and to whatever targets there are.”
And brands like streaming services or blockbuster movies make for particularly compelling partners, Calkins notes. “There’s always the challenge on the Super Bowl of how do you really get people to notice you,” he says. “And when you partner with a really well-known media property, you’ve got an advantage there, because people recognize that and notice it.”
And there are indications that these types of partnerships work. According to EDO, a data firm that measures the impact of advertising on TV, a 2018 Super Bowl ad for both auto brand Lexus and the Disney film Black Panther delivered on its goals.
“Ad engagement for the Black Panther and Lexus airing, measured individually, would have given the brands the 13th and 14th highest scoring ad airings of the game, equating to each brand receiving the same lift as if they had their own spot in the Super Bowl,” the company said. In other words, the partnership was just as impactful as if each brand had its own ad.
But partnering on an ad also brings complications. It’s one thing if companies decide to share the costs 50-50, but when, say, a movie brings its star to the ad, how should that impact the sharing of resources? And with only 30 seconds (or 60 or 90) to promote the product or service, how do you divide the promotional time between the brands while still delivering an impactful and entertaining experience?
In the case of Netflix and GM, the joint desire to drive awareness of EVs made for what Lee says is an “organic and very authentic partnership.” Other team-ups might not be so simple. “When you have two strong players partnering up, there always is going to be a tension between the two,” Calkins says. “Each brand is going to want to be front and center, and each brand will have a certain message they’re going to try to get across. And that’s really difficult to do successfully in one of these spots.”
Still, multiple high-level sources in the media buying and advertising space say they expect these types of advertising partnerships to proliferate in future Super Bowls, recession or not.
The Super Bowl is the biggest live event, and therefore the biggest advertising event, of the year, and every marketer wants in. But the price of entry is only expected to rise, as is the desire to stand out from the crowd. And that is likely to lead major advertisers like automakers and consumer goods and beer companies to seek out partners to control costs and drive impact, while other brands that might not be able to justify a full campaign will seek out partners so that they get a small piece of the action.
When it comes to brands joining forces for the Super Bowl, Adgate notes, “Years from now, we’ll look back on this and say this was kind of a watershed moment.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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