By Paul Farhi
The Washington Post
It's one thing to create a buzzworthy commercial packed with celebrities, hot babes or that old reliable, Stuff Blowing Up. You'll see plenty of that during Sunday's Super Bowl telecast, from Budweiser's puppy-meets-Clydesdales spot to Jaguar's cinematic extravaganza on behalf of its new $65,000 coupe.
But it's quite another thing to figure out how to deliver all that would-be buzziness to the most people at the lowest possible price.
That's the game within the big ad game, the multimillion-dollar Super Bowl sponsor challenge. Advertisers know their commercials will be seen by tens of millions of people, and that airtime will sell for appropriately ludicrous amounts. This year, the average cost of a 30-second commercial will be about $4 million, or $133,000 per second, about the same as last year.
But, as the ads often say, your results might vary. The average cost is all but meaningless to Super Bowl sponsors, who cut complicated deals with the game's broadcaster (this year, Fox), often many months in advance. What advertisers really care about is an ad's "efficiency," or its cost per viewer.
Figuring that out is harder than you'd think — "more art than science," as marketing professor George Belch of San Diego State University puts it. The calculation involves some educated guesswork about when to buy a Super Bowl ad, how much to pay and where to place a spot during the nearly four-hour broadcast.
The process is complicated by an unknowable factor: Will one team dominate, or will the game be close? And for how long? It matters — a lot. Viewers stick around for competitive games but leave by the millions during a blowout. The NFL found this out to its chagrin in the 1990s, when ratings dipped for a series of lopsided games.