Fox Races to Sell Out Super Bowl Commercials Before Kickoff

  • Network still has handful of spots to sell with week to go
  • Broadcaster asking about $5 million for 30-second slot

With the Super Bowl just days away, Fox has yet to sell a handful of lucrative advertising spots for the year’s most-watched TV event, putting pressure on the broadcast network to finish before the clock runs out.

Fox has been seeking around $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime, a new record. On Friday, the broadcaster said it still had more commercials left than is normal the week before the game. It’s customary for networks to hold two or three spots to get top dollar for them, but Fox held more in hopes of cashing in on a marquee match-up. The New England Patriots are one of the league’s most popular teams, but they’ll face the Atlanta Falcons on Feb. 5 instead of the more widely followed Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers, who were vanquished in the playoffs. 

“We held a couple more than we thought in case it was Dallas or the Packers,” said Bruce Lefkowitz, who oversees Super Bowl advertising sales for Fox.  The market was also a bit slower than usual, Lefkowitz said, because some creative agencies are hesitant to face the pressure to deliver a successful ad in the era of social media scrutiny and commercial rankings.

Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc., expects to sell whatever inventory remains before the game. After all, this is the one time all year people actually want to watch the ads. To fill its remaining slots, Fox has started reaching out to companies in the home markets of the Falcons and the Patriots.

“We have a handful of spots left, and significantly more than a handful of interested parties,” Lefkowitz said.

Buyers, sellers and marketers provide different explanations for why the market has been slow this year, from the defection of some blue-chip advertisers to questions surrounding the popularity of football and the cost of spots.

“They hit a wall at some point in the fourth quarter where they were stuck with a handful of units,” said Dave Campanelli, head of national broadcast at ad buyer Horizon Media. “I don’t know if Fox has a good reason for it.”

Skittles, Snickers

The cost of a Super Bowl ad has more than quadrupled since Fox aired its first Super Bowl in 1997. This year’s $5 million price didn’t deter some advertisers, including Mars Inc., owner of Skittles and Snickers, and several automakers, from buying spots the first chance they got. Yet that price became an impediment after the upfront sales.

Super Bowl ad prices are negotiable, and brands pay different amounts based on the commercial time they buy and when the ads appear in the game.

The disappearance of a few regular advertisers didn’t help Fox this year. Doritos, a stalwart of the annual advertising derby, opted not to buy a spot this year, as did Toyota Motor Corp., Visa Inc., Yum Brands Inc.’s Taco Bell and Nestle SA’s Butterfinger. Those defections forced the TV network to find new buyers.

“I’m shocked on Doritos,” said Marcie Allen, who negotiates deals between musicians and advertisers as chief executive officer of MAC Presents.

No Doritos

Doritos is sitting out this year’s Super Bowl because it’s expanding its annual “Crash the Super Bowl” contest -- where fans used to compete to make ads for the big game -- so consumers create Doritos commercials year round instead, said Jennifer Saenz, chief marketing officer at Frito-Lay, the PepsiCo Inc. unit that makes Doritos. It’s the first time Doritos won’t have a Super Bowl spot in a decade.

“The Super Bowl is an incredibly valuable property, especially for advertising,” Saenz said. “But it made sense for us to move forward.”

The pressure on creative agencies to come up with something fresh is immense. The days when a brand could throw up a cool-looking car and a celebrity are over. With so much scrutiny over every ad, so much competition for attention and the unfriendly commentators on social media, the creative work has to be top-notch. Marketing officers can lose jobs due to just one bad Super Bowl spot.

That’s why Skittles, which is advertising for the third year in a row, views its Super Bowl ad as part of a larger campaign. Several years ago, Skittles staged a fake interview with Marshawn Lynch, then of the Seattle Seahawks. Last year, Skittles created a custom filter for Snapchat that users could place over their face for any messages.

The company wouldn’t say what it has planned this year, except that two publicity stunts are ready to go -- one in the form of an event and another in the form of video.

“Our goal is to be one of the most talked about ads during the Super Bowl,” said Matt Montei, senior marketing director for confections at Wrigley, the Mars Inc. unit that owns Skittles. “The most eyeballs are on during that game.”

Lower Ratings

About 111.9 million people tuned into the Super Bowl last year. But that was down by 2.5 million from 2015. A sharp decline in viewership of professional football games earlier in the season has invited greater scrutiny of the business around the sport than ever before.

TV network executives claim the smaller audience this season was an anomaly. Outsize interest in the presidential election and early injuries to star players damped enthusiasm early in the season, and viewership improved later. 

Fox, which airs games throughout the fall and in the playoffs, will have its most lucrative season of football yet, Lefkowitz said. The Super Bowl will be “the highest revenue day in Fox history,” he said.

Yet there is no question that advertisers are wondering about the future. “The marketplace in general is softening a little bit,” Campanelli said.

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