A football game without commercials? Not on this side of the Atlantic

More than a typical annoyance, TV ads make for a mini film festival alongside the action on Super Bowl Sunday

Actor Laurence Fishburne stars in a "Matrix"-inspired ad for Kia on Sunday.
Kia Motors America

Imagine a football game with no commercials.

The mere idea would strike fear into the hearts of ad agencies across the country and deeply sadden the millions of Americans who are looking forward to Sunday’s Super Bowl just to see what the this year’s lot of cute kids, talking animals and scantily clad ladies.

A 30-second ad during the Super Bowl is selling for a reported $4 million, and living rooms will be filled with people shushing each other when the action on the field pauses and the commercials start. The game has been built, in many ways, around the ability of advertisers to stop the action and pay for the time to have their messages aired.

It truly is the American way.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation dominates the television landscape in the United Kingdom and is not allowed to show commercials. Even the commercial channels are limited to just seven minutes of ads per hour. Thus, soccer games are broadcast with 90 minutes of action, plus halftime, in less than two hours. American football, meanwhile, takes a minimum of three hours to broadcast just 60 minutes of game action.

The experience of watching an American football game broadcast in the U.K. makes clear how disjointed the game really is, said Chris Hackley, a professor of marketing at Royal Holloway University of London. While American audiences are served beer commercials, movies trailers and financial planning ads, British viewers are sent back to a studio where a few commentators chat about pretty much anything just to pass the time before the game resumes.

“It appears very fragmented on U.K. TV,” Hackley said. “When you grow up watching rugby and soccer, you’re used to 40 or 45 minutes of action with no breaks whatsoever. It does come across very differently.”

And while even American viewers are generally annoyed by ads 364 days of the year, it all changes on Super Bowl Sunday.

“It is one of the most extraordinary sleights of hand that Madison Avenue has ever pulled off,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “And that’s saying something because Madison Avenue’s entire job is sleights of hand. But this Super Bowl business may be one of its biggest.”

'Lambs to the slaughter'?

With an increasingly rare captive audience for live viewing, and the ever-rising cost of a 30-second ad, advertisers pull out all the stops in an effort to capture viewers’ attention.

“It’s become a film festival, rather than a series of interruptions,” Thompson said. “Super Bowl Sunday is about two things: a football game and a film festival, and, like lambs to the slaughter, we’ve believed it.”

But even with a massive price tag, Thompson noted, the big winners on Super Bowl Sunday could get a big return on their investment.

“You may pay $4 million for 30 seconds, but not only do you get that commercial, you get all the free mentions on social media, free publicity and free airings when the news channels round up ‘the best ads,’” Thompson said. “Especially if you rank high up on that list, the next day you see them all over.”

And, despite all that, most of the ads fail to live up to expectations. Year after year of disappointment, with just a couple of standouts now and then, hasn’t tempered the public’s appetite — probably because the ad agencies know exactly who they’re marketing toward.

“Most people do watch the Super Bowl in groups and, given the nature of the Super Bowl viewing experience, if you’re an adult it’s very likely you’ve been drinking and you may be half in the bag before this game starts,” Thompson said. “You’ve got this festive atmosphere, and, in that situation, these commercials can seem a lot more entertaining than they may be in the cold, hard light of day.”

Changing times

What’s clear to most observers is that the Super Bowl is one of the last places where advertisers can predict a large, demographically diverse audience, because of changing viewing habits. More people are watching television on their own time with On Demand options, DVR recordings and online streaming.

But even that may be changing. As last year’s Super Bowl — which was interrupted by a power outage at the New Orleans Superdome — proved, social media could very well change the conversation. During the power outage, with viewers, players and the broadcast network left simply hanging around and waiting to see what would happen next, the official Oreo Twitter account tweeted a picture of a cookie in an otherwise dark room with the caption, “You can still dunk in the dark.”

“To some extent social media is overtaking conventional advertising,” Hackley said, noting the Oreo tweet. “They tweeted this moderately amusing joke, and it was retweeted 14,000 times. It kind of caught people’s imagination for its spontaneity, and, in spite of the millions they’d spent on a TV ad, the tweet became the most talked about moment.”

But the traditional Super Bowl ad won’t go anywhere soon.

“If you’re watching a full, five-hour show and only one hour of sporting,” Hackley said, “you’re going to have to fill that time with something.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter