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Olympics vs. Super Bowl: Which Ads Got Better Brand Awareness?

Olympics or Super Bowl

Big-event marketing is a risky bet for major companies and brands. It is difficult to get a good measure of the return on investment (ROI) for an ad during such events. It is also questionable that the investment is worth it even for branding or reputation building.

This year’s Super Bowl ads may have been too heavy on message or entertainment, and not enough on branding; just 2 out of 13 people guessed the correct brand of a Super Bowl ad when Adweek polled passersby in Times Square the week after the 2018 game. (Or maybe New Yorkers—at least those polled—just didn’t watch the Eagles-Patriots encounter; TV ratings  + streaming capped out at around 106 million total viewers and a mediocre Nielsen market rating, far less than the network would have liked.) And very few ads excited any post-game discussion, unlike ads of Super Bowls long past.

When Adweek polled Columbus Circle passersbys (from all over the USA) a week into the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, they tracked much higher brand awareness of ads airing during the NBC broadcasts. Adweek asked 10 groups to name the brands behind 3-4 ads, and eight of the groups guessed at least one ad correctly.

A Microsoft ad was recognized by most of those polled, although not what it was pitching (innovation/AI advances); while a clip from a Toyota ad wasn’t identified at all (one of a series under the auto firm’s “Start Your Impossible” campaign).

Oddly, although I watched the Games daily, I hadn’t even seen the Microsoft ad by mid-Games (it aired multiple times during prime time as the Games wound to a close); and the Toyota ad shared by Adweek is among those I saw aired repeatedly, and was impressed with. Toyota booked 50 athletes for their Olympics/Paralympics-tied ads, many focused on robotics and prosthetics for disabled or injured people, with the tagline “Mobility for All.”

Do Big-Event Ads Have Value?

All of this raises the inevitable question: what is the advertising ROI for Olympics and Super Bowl ad dollars? Thirty-second spots in this year’s Super Bowl cost over $5 million, and that’s just the media placement; Meanwhile, a prime-time Olympics 30-second spot is estimated to run between $560.000 and $677,000, and that’s without the cost of sponsorship. The rules around non-sponsor marketing tied to the Games are stringent, and although they have been relaxed a bit since the London Games, they are still restrictive for many smaller sponsors of individual athletes.

Is big-event advertising really just about prestige and bragging rights among big corporations? Do companies have objectives for these ads, and how does accountability factor into big event ad planning and spending? Does post-tracking and testing reveal that big event advertising is a waste of money, or even risky (see the Dodge Ram Trucks fiasco from Super Bowl LII)? Do companies focus on benevolent support of national teams and the mission of the Olympic Games? (In a perfect world…)

Some big sponsors opted out of high-cost Winter Games ads, including long-time Games sponsor McDonald’s; others, including P&G and AT&T, trimmed their Games ad budget thirty percent this year. Still others chose to shift ad dollars to other big events, like World Cup soccer. The rise in digital and streaming viewers has also moved ad spending online; the global TV audience is not what it once was, even as ad costs increase.

Risks Beyond Cost

With sporting events, extra risks are involved. Ads are often created before the events, and then companies have to pray that athletes or teams appearing in their ads win or perform well… or just don’t attract the wrong kinds of headlines. In PyeongChang, VISA scored with cheery snowboarder Chloe Kim’s gold medal; multiple sponsors (VISA, Bose, SportsEngine, Longine) used alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin who also won a gold, while those using high-profile, World Cup champion downhiller Lindsey Vonn had to settle for her bronze in the women’s downhill. Where sponsors are concerned, anything less than a gold is often a loser.

On February 21, U.S. women skiers won their first ever cross country medal in the team sprint event… and it was gold. Comcast, an Olympic sponsor, quickly broadcast an edited version of their Olympics TV spot, “3 A.M.in Afton,” showing new medalist Jessie Diggins’s Minnesota hometown fans, newly edited to include footage of her victory and post-race celebration with partner Kikkan Randall of Alaska. Digital editing certainly makes real-time ad production much easier.

Even with those warm-fuzzies generated among viewers watching the event, how much did the ad boost perceptions of Comcast, a long-reviled brand? And how many actually noticed the Comcast slug at the end of the ad? The big event itself can overshadow brand messaging.

Social Media Ad Glut

Meanwhile, non-sponsors piled on to social media to try to harness the popularity of Olympics stars. The practice of trying to enter non-brand conversations has become a practice (it is less and less a “best”) for many companies. Just ask Chloe Kim about her “hangry” Tweet. Instead of sounding cool a clever, like Oreo’s famous “Dunk in the Dark” tweet, brands end up seeming desperate for attention.

At least Olympic ad rules keep the focus on sports and individual athletes. Except for those annoying Subway commercials, but more about that in another article…


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