Carnegie Mellon University
January 30, 2017

Are Super Bowl Ads, Movie Trailers Really Worth the Cost?

Heinz College professor says they are

By Scott Barsotti

Football field with dollar signs
Image by Joseph Mallonee

Advertisers are paying $5 million for a 30-second spot in this Sunday's Super Bowl, and Carnegie Mellon University Professor Michael D. Smith says it is a good investment.

"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, a professor of information technology and marketing at CMU's Heinz College.

Smith added the Super Bowl, the most watched television event in the U.S., is unique because people want to watch the commercials, which have become the game within the game.

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 from Budweiser, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

In 1996, the teaser for the science fiction movie "Independence Day" electrified viewers of Super Bowl XXX and it became the most anticipated movie of the summer, kicking off a resurgence of big-budget sci-fi and disaster films. It went on to top $817 million worldwide during its theatrical run.

Since then, major film studios have invested in trailers during the Super Bowl. From 2004 to 2014, 70 movie ads ran during Super Bowl broadcasts. Smith said, on average these films saw an $8.4 million increase in box office sales during their opening weekend.

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

Smith and his colleagues 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 about a 20 percent viewership spike in that team's local market. Smith and his team also reported that in the regions represented in the Super Bowl, there was a swell in opening weekend box office revenue and 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 Super Bowl ad, supposing that a firm large enough to afford a Super Bowl ad would have baseline sales so high that it makes ROI from a single ad impossible to infer.

Smith said his research offers an exception to that theory because, instead of looking at a single advertising campaign, this study was able to analyze the effectiveness of 70 different movies advertised during the Super Bowl. 

This year, millions of football fans will tune in for Super Bowl LI to watch the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons and millions of others will keep an eye out for the most compelling and creative advertisements of the year.