Super Bowl Ads Score Highest Viewer-Retention Rates

New Study Details Power of ‘Special Event’ TV

By Richard Linnett

NEW YORK ( — Messages from marketers who buy time on the Super Bowl receive unusually high levels of audience attention because of the unique dynamics of the annual broadcast, according to a new study by Initiative Media Worldwide.

The Super Bowl is the champ in its ability to retain 99.5% of its viewers during commercials.

The study also found that the genre of larger “special event” broadcast TV programming — including the Super Bowl — regularly delivers higher advertising impact for national marketers than regular programming.

Ads’ worth debated

The Initiative Media findings were released as Advertising Age published the results of an poll showing that 61% of voters don’t think Super Bowl commercials are worth their cost. At the same time, a recent study by another trade publication found that only 7% of consumers say they have switched a product-buying behavior after viewing a Super Bowl spot.

Super Bowl ad prices, which hit a record high of $2.25 million for a 30-second spot this year, serve as a benchmark of the upper reaches of the TV advertising industry. The ads and their prices are the subject of widespread interest and debate among the marketers, advertising executives and media buyers heavily involved in this annual football and advertising extravaganza.

Initiative Media, which is a part of Interpublic Group of Cos. and headquartered in New York, is the world’s fourth-largest advertising media buying company. Initiative said its study had determined that the live, special-event aspects of the Super Bowl give it particularly potent advertising power.

Water-cooler talk

“Special events on television offer networks and marketers the opportunity to reach viewers ‘live,’ ” the report said. “More than the average program, specials evoke a higher profile of media coverage and, subsequently, water-cooler talk.”

Paul Melter, director of strategy implementation at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, agrees. “The Super Bowl is reaching one-third of the country,” he said. “At approximately 2.5 cents per viewer, not to mention the ripple effect at the office and the media coverage the next day, it offers a rare chance to create a permanent bond with your loyal consumers.”

The Initiative Media study found that the “live” element in specials such as the Super Bowl keep viewers glued to their sets, even during commercial breaks. On average specials hold on to 95% of their viewing audiences during breaks, the report said. The Super Bowl does that the best; in 2003 it retained 99.5% of its viewers during commercials, while the NFC Championship game on Fox held onto 99.5%. Among other specials, CBS’ broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors retained 97.6% of its audience; the Miss America pageant on ABC held 97.3%; and Country Music Association awards show on CBS 96.8%.

The Academy Awards on ABC usually ranks in the top five, but because of last year’s war with Iraq, which caused viewers to switch to continuous news coverage during commercial breaks, the event ranked 8th at 95.6%.

Less clutter

According to the study, the Super Bowl scores extremely high because not only are commercials considered part of the show, but there are fewer of them. On average, 19% of total program minutes in specials are commercials, while only 16.5% of the Super Bowl broadcast was made up ads.

Stacey Lynn Koerner, Initiative’s executive vice president and director of global research integration, said analyzing the success of the Super Bowl and other specials may help advertisers and networks develop better ways to hold on to disappearing TV audiences.

“When the networks create shows of shorter duration, that can benefit retention,” Ms. Koerner said, referring to reality shows and limited series. “Audiences know that regular series often repeat. There’s not a lot of fear that if they miss an episode, they’ll never see it again.”

‘Lack of commercial turnout’

Not surprisingly, David Poltrack, the executive vice president for research and planning at CBS, which is airing the Super Bowl and selling the advertising time, agrees with Initiative’s finding that there is a “lack of commercial tune-out” by viewers during the Super Bowl and other special-event broadcasts.

Mr. Poltrack said this retention is due as much to the programming as to the uniqueness and originality of the advertising aired during these shows. “It is enhanced even more by the fact that a lot of the commercials in these specials are more thematically compatible with the content. For instance, the Miss America pageant tends to have a lot of cosmetic commercials. And they have live lead-ins from the shows to the commercials. There is a certain level of integration between the program and the advertising.”

Mr. Poltrack also said that regular programming can learn lessons from specials and indicated that CBS is working on ways to “better integrate the commercial messages with programs, either through billboarding or sponsorship.”