These are odd times we’re living in. Two billionaire presidential candidates (including the current president) are dropping lots of cash on Super Bowl ads. This is not your father’s election cycle.
There are a slew of Democratic candidates vying for the nomination. Some of them, along with President Trump in his reelection bid, are spending unprecedented amounts of money, faster and earlier than in previous election cycles in part due to the inflated budgets of the billionaires running, including Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg.
Trump is communicating directly from his pocket to your Twitter feed. Candidates are focusing on things like geotagging as part of their social media strategies, finding and targeting you better than they ever have before based on the data you have provided the internet when you’ve, say, Googled a recipe or streamed something on your ad-supported Hulu.
Days after Bloomberg announced he was running for president, he scooped up 60 seconds of Super Bowl airtime for north of $10 million on one of the world’s largest media stages—because, as his campaign told Adweek, they had heard rumblings that the president had done the same thing.
It’s the first time in recent memory a politician has decided it’s worth spending millions of dollars to reach hundreds of millions of people at one shot during the Super Bowl. That decision alone, in a time of great political tension in this country and abroad, speaks volumes about where they are putting their money, and why.
“They have the budget,” said Lindsay Stewart, CEO and co-founder of Stringr, a digital video marketplace. “Trump has raised a lot of money, and Bloomberg is fantastically, personally wealthy. They can do it so they’re going to.”
That political fight, taken to the largest sporting event in America, is blurring politics and entertainment and branding in a way we’ve never seen before. And because it’s such a unique cycle, we’re not likely to see it again.
Politicians have not traditionally taken out Super Bowl ads—defined as spots that run nationally between kickoff and when the clock runs out on the football game—according to a handful of marketing and advertising experts who spoke with Adweek. Perhaps that’s in part because politicians didn’t used to treat themselves as brands.
“Now, we’re seeing more and more business-minded candidates, and they approach a campaign differently than someone who has a career or record in public service,” said Southwestern University’s Debika Sihi, associate professor of economics and business. “They see it very much as a campaign or business where you do advertise and get ahead of the competition and brand awareness.”
Candidates running for office at all levels have taken out ads during the Super Bowl in local markets. That includes President Obama, who while running his first presidential campaign in February 2008 took out ads in local markets in 24 states during the Super Bowl. This year, there are also bound to be political ads running in local markets, like one from Stacey Abrams in Georgia advocating for the expansion of voting rights.
The value for politicians in taking out Super Bowl ads is the same as it is for brands. A spot in the Super Bowl is a great way to spend your money if you want a lot of eyeballs on the ad, don’t really care about targeting a specific audience and have the budget to spend. These truths, experts told Adweek, have created even more tension as audiences continue to fragment.
In this Super Bowl, you’ll see ads from two of the biggest political ad spenders of this election cycle who will end the race, by all predictions, spending unparalleled amounts of money on advertising.
“When you have two billionaires going into the Super Bowl, this is a signal of the kind of financial infusion we’ll see politically throughout this year,” said Dan Jaffe, evp of government relations at the Association of National Advertisers. “You can safely predict now that unless something dramatic happens, this spend will be unprecedented and substantially higher than it has in the past.”
Bloomberg joined the race in November. By the end of the month, he had purchased a Super Bowl ad and within about a month, he had already spent $100 million on campaign ads. The campaign to reelect Trump has spent more than $20 million on Facebook alone.
“Money is being spent earlier and earlier throughout the entire process,” said Allan Welch, director, political and government affairs, SpotX. “These two candidates have upended the conversations in terms of spending politically now.”
The Super Bowl usually attracts around 100 million viewers or more. But, experts said, these ads should be seen as one-offs that speak more to the appeal of advertising in such a big sporting event than an embrace of TV advertising.
“If you take this as a commitment to linear TV, you’re crazy,” said Brian Sheehan, advertising professor, SI Newhouse School of Public Communications. “This is a commitment to the Super Bowl, which is linear TV at its best. It’s high-profile, high-impact television, what’s left of it. I don’t think it’s a commitment to spending more money on television.”
That said, the campaigns will also probably take the ads and tailor them for digital audiences, if not adapt them for other TV campaigns throughout the election cycle.
Trump’s ads are expected to run during the first half of the Super Bowl, and Bloomberg’s will run after halftime. Bloomberg’s spot, which was released Thursday morning ahead of the game, focuses on gun reform and features a mother who lost her son to a shooting narrating and vouching for the candidate.
The campaign, which used Siegel Strategies to produce the ad, thought the spot would be a “powerful way” to tell Bloomberg’s story, Bloomberg’s national campaign spokesperson, Julie Wood, told Adweek.
“We had some options, but this one—the first time we watched it, we cried,” Wood said. She said she viewed the spot as a way to continue to introduce Bloomberg as a candidate to the nation, while also touching on policy. Hawkfish, the digital agency Bloomberg created and has since attracted heavyweights from the ad industry, is expected to continue advising his presidential campaign.
Trump released one 30-second ad hours after Bloomberg did on Thursday and will debut another live during the game. The first ad from Trump focused on his time in the White House and featured imagery of him taking the oath of office.
As for which candidate secured a better position during the game, buyers say there is no consensus on Super Bowl placement, as each brand has different theories about the best, and worst, spots to advertise during the Big Game.
Trump, as the sitting president, and Bloomberg, have different tasks ahead of them with their messages. “If you go too extreme in your messaging, you run the risk of galvanizing the people who disagree with you,” said David A. Schweidel, marketing professor at Emory University. “You’ll energize your base, but you’ll energize everyone else also.”
Branding experts told Adweek ahead of the game that it would be wise for Trump to tout the successes of his presidency so far, and particularly to draw attention away from the impeachment proceedings. Meanwhile, they thought it would be wise for Bloomberg to focus on introducing himself to voters, especially in Middle America, where people may not be as familiar with him as those in New York, where he served as mayor from 2002 to 2013.
Trump will also technically get more airtime on Fox than Bloomberg by taking part in that Super Bowl Sunday staple: the pregame interview, during which Trump will sit down with Fox’s Sean Hannity.
Just as it’s rare for ads from politicians to appear in the Super Bowl, there’s no precedent for how the network will handle Trump’s and Bloomberg’s. In this case, the network will use promos for Fox programming as a buffer between their Super Bowl ads and the other ads running in the same pod (or ad break).
The risk of running a campaign ad during the Super Bowl is that consumers don’t want to see the messaging. “The ad isn’t in a silo,” Sihi said. “It exists in the context of the other ads. They’ll need to be mindful of that.”
The same applies for brands running an ad that touches on political themes or policies. “In some sense, you have this unifying event,” Schweidel said. “On the other hand, we’re probably the most polarizing we’ve been in my lifetime and several lifetimes. It’s a minefield for brands. You run the risk of alienating your customers if you take out a strong political stance.” Brands have to take into consideration their viewers. And they have to go into the advertisement with an authentic and genuine message, experts said.
So, is this the new normal? Most experts Adweek spoke with agreed this year is not indicative of any sort of trend in terms of political ad spend because there are billionaires in this race with virtually bottomless buckets of money to spend on messaging. And we might not be subjected to that again. “Predicting beyond that is somewhat foolhearted,” Jaffe said.
—TV editor Jason Lynch contributed to this report.