CBS Sells Out Super Bowl Ad Time Despite Big Brand Defections

Brian Steinberg
·4-min read

Even in tough times, advertisers still want a Super Bowl.

CBS is “virtually sold out” of all its commercial inventory for Super Bowl LIV, according to a spokesperson for parent company ViacomCBS, a sign that Madison Avenue remains interested in the Big Game despite some of the rockier economic conditions surrounding it.

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The network has been seeking around $5.5M for a 30 second in-game spot and has been grappling with decisions by some stalwart sponsors to bench their usual activity in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Anheuser-Busch InBev, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, three veteran Super Bowl advertisers, have all announced their intention to bench ads from their flagship brands in this year’s game, slated to be broadcast by CBS on February 7. Anheuser and PepsiCo have bought ad slots for a number of other products, while Coke is sitting out the event entirely. Two other recent game-day stalwarts, Hyundai and Avocados from Mexico, have also decided to stay on the sidelines in 2021.

Fox’s 2020 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV generated around $435 million in in-game advertising — a record haul, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending. Fox Corporation said the company had likely taken in around $600 million when pre- and post-game advertising was included.

CBS signed its last Super Bowl ad spot Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the matter. Ad slots for a video stream set to accompany the linear broadcast have also sold out, these people said, and CBS has some “scattered” openings in its pre-game coverage. The digital slots have been doing for around $300,000 while pre-game inventory can go for anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to $3 million, depending on proximity to kickoff.

These people cautioned that the last days before a Super Bowl broadcast are often filled with high drama from clients, who may seek to change an ad slot or ask if another company might consider picking it up. The game, broadcast from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, will feature the Kansas City Chiefs defending their championship from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the prospect of seeing quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes squaring off against Tom Brady could drive new interest from advertisers late to the process.

Behind the scenes, CBS’ ad-sales team worked methodically, these people said. While the big brands sitting out the game made for colorful headlines, executives remained sanguine behind the scenes, comfortable in the knowledge that Anheuser-Busch InBev and PepsiCo had committed to buying a sizable number of ad slots for other brands, including Mountain Dew, Bud Light and Doritos. Ad-sales executives have been working on Super Bowl sales since just around the time Fox wound down its broadcast of Super Bowl LIV, these people said, and CBS and Pepsi have been in regular contact in recent months, due to Pepsi’s close ties to the event’s halftime show.

Still, this was not a normal Super Bowl sales process, and viewers may not see some of the usual commercial trappings that accompany the event. Viewers are likely to see few trailers for coming theater releases, these executives said, and a handful of spots for streaming-video selections. Movie studios have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and many consumers won’t see a film in a theater until large crowds can gather safely once more.

Selling the Super Bowl has become a more difficult task, even in good times. Fox was able to close out the ad roster for its 2020 broadcast of Super Bowl LIV by the preceding November, but such a feat has become an anomaly in recent years.

Simply put, the Super Bowl ad-sales process in recent years has often gone down to the last few days before kickoff. Due to the NFL’s decision in 2014 to sell “Thursday Night Football” rights to the broadcast networks, as well as its move to make football clips and streams available to digital players such as Amazon, advertisers have had many more hours of pigskin available to them — and at significantly lower costs than a Super Bowl spot. What’s more, Super Bowl costs have become exorbitant. Consider that the average cost of a 30-second ad in 2008 was a mere $2.7 million, according to Kantar. Add in more cash for special effects, celebrity appearances and licensing popular music, and it’s little wonder that some small advertisers can find themselves depositing their entire annual marketing budget into such a venture.

The CBS broadcast will be buoyed by first-time advertisers, both large and small. Unilever’s Hellman mayonnaise may add some spice to the game with a spot featuring Amy Schumer, as will Scott’s Miracle-Gro and Chipotle. None of these companies are strangers to big marketing outlays. But there are also a number of lesser-known rookies, such as Fiverr, Vroom, Mercari and Indeed, and their presence is testament to consumers’ growing interest in mobile apps and virtual services.

Still hoping to find something familiar? No worries. Advertisers who have made a name in past Super Bowls, like M&Ms and E-Trade, won’t be on the game’s sidelines.

More to come…

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