Humor In Super Bowl Commercials And How It Affects The Audience's Interest

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As one of the most-watched television broadcasts, the Super Bowl reaches a diverse audience, both in terms of demographics and psychographics, which gives networks and advertisers the opportunity to present their brands in the most attractive and persuasive way possible. Super Bowl has become one of the most effective marketing events, as the audience has gradually become more interested in the commercials, rather than the actual game.

For advertisers, however, the price to pay in order for their commercial to be aired during the game is not small at all, and it is the prime source of income for the current network that broadcasts the game. The game’s broadcast was initially shifted among the two main football leagues’ broadcasts, NBC for the Australian Football League and CBS for the National Football League, but it is currently being shifted between the NFL’s three prime television rightsholders – NBC, CBS and Fox, with CBS being the broadcaster of the 2019 Super Bowl. In 1967, a 30-second Super Bowl ad cost $42,000, and, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, these 30-second ad rates have risen from $700,000 to $3 million, an increase of over 300%, and estimated to have reached more than $5 million for the 2019 broadcast.

Advertisers are eager to pay exorbitant prices to reserve a spot during the Super Bowl, and as the price grows higher and higher in numbers, so does the competition. Therefore, the advertisers have to come up with original and more creative ideas, which will captivate the viewers, leave a lasting impression on them and hopefully incite their purchasing of a given product. Brands rely on various techniques of persuasion and attention to attract their viewers, with most ads featuring well-known celebrities, cute animals and lots of humor. And the 2019 Super Bowl commercials were no different, as the general trend for them was the heavy use of humor. Although advertisers rely on humor as a well-tested technique, it can also sometimes be too overwhelming, up to the point that it is not funny anymore or it dominates over what is actually being advertised. Nevertheless, humor does generally have an impact on viewers, but is it a positive one and, most importantly, is it worth the extortionate price of the Super Bowl ads?

For the purpose of this paper, I will be analyzing the general use of humor in commercials and how it does or does not work, by considering the economy of attention and the uses and gratifications theory. Afterwards, I will apply that specifically to Super Bowl ads by providing some information about the general trends in Super Bowl commercials and then using some of the 2019 commercial as an example for the use of humor.

Billions of dollars are spent on advertising every year, with between 10% to 30% of them containing some type of humor, as it has proven to be a valuable persuasion technique. It has become one of the most common tactics in the marketplace, that we, as consumers, have become used to it and do not consider it as a mean of persuasion. In North America, where humor is used more than any other countries, 69% of advertisements in the top impact quintile are humorous. Bearing in mind the economy of attention, humor is one of the prime tactics to help capture people’s attention, not because people will realize the use of comedy, but because advertisements containing humor are considered to leave the audience feeling more relaxed and more receptive to what is being presented. It helps to create a bond between the audience and the advertiser, often leaving a positive feeling towards the message, product or brand in the viewers. As a result, brands are likely to experience a boost in their sales. Moreover, it is a way to retain the audience’s attention more effectively, as it creates a pleasant diversion in the straightforward and argumentative commercials.

Lastly, some of the humorous commercials feature an intellectual puzzle which the audience has to solve in order to get to the message. This solution will result in satisfaction, which may transfer on to the brand, and the mental effort is likely to help assimilation and recall of the message, or the brand name at least. Thus, humor works in commercials not because it does something to its audience, but because the audience is positively affected by it. This is known as the uses and gratifications theory, according to which users actively choose the medium they want to be affected by, in order to fulfill needs and achieve gratification. By selecting to focus more on humorous advertising, people fulfill their affective and cognitive needs, as the ads provoke a given feeling in them and might make them think and acquire some type of knowledge. If they have experienced such an effect once, they are more likely to remember the impact that they had from it and to opt for it again.

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Even though it is often effective and has a positive impact on its audience, in order to avoid backlash and negative consequences there are also some aspects of comedic commercials to be considered. Comedy is both subjective and culturally specific. Some types of humor that are not always rightfully understood include mockery, kitsch, dark humor, parodies and off-the-wall humor. It is expected that not everyone has the same sense of humor, and where one person finds comedy another one might not or, what is worse, might be offended. While men are likely to enjoy aggressive type of humor, women, on the other hand, are attracted to frivolous humor.

To avoid that, advertisers must be mindful of their audience and considerate enough not to make rude and misleading jokes or remarks, which, unfortunately, is not always the case. The main reason why comedic commercials fail are because they come across as offensive and the viewers have a negative reaction to them, which most times reflects badly onto the given brand. Moreover, there is also the possibility of a brand to overdo or underdo humor, meaning that the humor in a commercial might either be so overwhelming that the audience misses the message of it, or, the exact opposite, the comedy is not enough, and it makes the commercial unimaginative and insipid. Beside all of this, advertisers spend significant amounts of money to broadcast their commercials, but at the end the consumers might find themselves liking the funny ad, but not remembering the brand it was promoting. The probability of people focusing only on the comedy in the commercial and not remembering the important information of it leaves the advertisers at a huge disadvantage, since they not only lose large sums of money, but potential consumers as well.

The Super Bowl exemplifies the relationship between media, sports and advertising. The commercialized phenomenon that is the Super Bowl is characterized by being one of the leading marketing events in television broadcasting, with people paying more attention to the various commercials rather than the outcome of the game, as well as discussing them for months before and after the actual event. Advertisers spend extortionate amounts of money creating and producing commercials for the Super Bowl, despite the fact that the cost of airing these commercials has increased steeply over the years. And yet, each year there is a mad rush to purchase Super Bowl spots at unreasonable prices. As an example of this, advertisement space for Super Bowl XXXIV was sold out nearly 5 months in advance of the game. One of the main reasons why advertisers give into this marketing phenomenon is the attractive size of the audience it provides, as well as the vast demographic. More specifically, it provides a concentrated male viewership, which is an opportunity that advertisers want to capitalize on since male viewers are more difficult to target during prime time viewing. The Super Bowl is also the premier advertising vehicle for reaching adults under the age of 35 years.

Additionally, companies are eager to invest in the game because research has demonstrated that its viewers are more attentive to Super Bowl advertisements, with approximately 68% of surveyed respondents having paid attention to Super Bowl advertisements and 52% having discussed the advertisements the next day. Another survey suggests that the recall of Super Bowl advertisements is superior to advertisements aired during conventional programming based on the presence of program-induced effects.

The theory of uses and gratifications is closely related to these reasons, as they prove that people opt to tune into the Super Bowl with the incentive to fulfill certain needs and are much more perceptive during that time, rather than when they have no desire in watching something else. Therefore, many major companies spend millions of dollars to make a statement at the venue of this crucial for marketing event, which, on its part, has helped many brands to promote and launch their new products. However, not only brands take advantage of this event, but major movie producers as well. In recent years, it has been apparent that Super Bowl advertisement investments have helped Hollywood studios successfully market their films, with over 80% of the Hollywood movies, advertised during the Super Bowls, turning out to be box office hits.

In a similar view, research has shown that television programming influences the audience’s emotions, which is why advertisers must get their viewers emotionally involved and to provoke feelings in them. Since most of the Super Bowl viewers are highly attentive and emotionally involved during the game, the advertisers’ role is to transfer that said involvement into the following commercials. Viewers pay attention to advertisements that provoke an immediate emotional response and respond favorably to advertisements that put them in a positive mood state and are more likely to have a positive evaluation of an advertised brand or a product.

Hence, Super Bowl advertisements rely heavily on the use of humor, as it is expected to capture the audience’s attention more successfully than the rest. The percentage of Super Bowl commercials that contain humor has steadily risen in the 2000s, with nearly 80% of the Super Bowl commercials in 2009 being comedy-based. Bearing in mind the festive atmosphere of Super Bowl telecasts, it is likely that Super Bowl viewers are highly anticipating humor in those commercials.

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