What the Big Game Teaches Us About Advertising - 19 IDEAS

Back in December, 19 IDEAS’ Creative Director, Amber Rampino, compiled a list of the most effective holiday advertisements of the year. Outside of the holiday season, the most important time of the year for ad agencies – and the companies that rely on them to tell their story – is the NFL’s big game. While advertising during the biggest television event is cost-prohibitive for most companies, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the process. I’ll break them down with some actionable applications for companies and organizations, regardless of your ad budget.


The first tactic I want to highlight suggests ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room altogether. Counterprogramming is the act of offering something different from a competing business or event, to attract a separate – often unconsidered – audience. The big game is the most-watched American television broadcast each year, with an estimated 98.2 million people tuning in to 2019’s big game. Whether people get together for the love of the game, the funny commercials or the taco dip, it’s a lot of eyeballs on one event. 

There’s a good lesson in this. Given the juggernaut that the NFL is, there’s often an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality around cultural events as large as the game. With the right type of counterprogramming, you can identify, market to and attract an entirely separate audience that isn’t being catered to. Good counterprogramming identifies external opportunities and circumvents existing barriers of entry – in the case of the big game: high cost, limited advertising space, strict messaging guidelines enforced by the NFL – to provide value for those who aren’t catered to by the game and its advertisers.

Hollywood has cracked the game’s counterprogramming code and, for the last couple of decades, studios have opted for releasing horror movies and romantic comedies – movies whose attendance typically skews heavily toward young women – on the weekend of the big game. Movies that may get ignored during other times of the year have found a consistent audience by playing against a cultural event that doesn’t interest their core demographic. 

If you struggle to find ways to align your company’s messaging with something that impacts your business’s bottom line, exploring counterprogramming could be an effective way to cut through the noise. 


One of the big draws of advertising during the big game is the clout that comes with it. For the ads that get approved, aligning your brand with the NFL and the other companies that advertise carries with it a certain cool factor. Companies will slap their brand on almost anything to be associated with an organization that has diehard fans like the NFL does. Case in point: It’s not the Halftime Show, it’s the Pepsi Halftime Show.

Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have fanbases that span the globe.

As the official soft drink of the NFL, Pepsi’s brand is synonymous with the big game. It aligns their brand not only with the organization but the acts performing during the Halftime Show, too. It probably costs an arm and a leg to maintain that sponsorship, but Pepsi finds value in the constant reinforcement of their brand alignment. 

Consumers remember these associations when they go shopping, see a movie or eat at a restaurant. Alignment matters and this can be true for co-branded sponsorships, influencer marketing and even the types of soft drinks your restaurant carries. When a server asks, “Is Coke okay?” we all say, “Yes,” but is it really? Obviously, I’m kidding, but battle lines have been drawn over smaller matters, and when it comes to soft drinks, Americans care.


This alignment can be a double-edged sword, as some brands have learned the hard way. The saying “no press is bad press” often depends on your vantage point. Attempts to be political, hypersexual or controversial in any way with ads have backfired in the past. When the joke doesn’t land, an ad is deemed an expensive misfire. When a company tries to tackle a nuanced subject in 15-30 seconds, the risk of disaster is extremely high. 

When you search “Snickers Super Bowl Commercial” on YouTube, the top 3 searches include their biggest triumph and greatest failure.

Millions of dollars in profits and losses.

In 2007, the company ran an ad starring two mechanics that engage in a “Lady and the Tramp” style kiss over a shared Snickers bar. Repulsed by what transpired, they begin drinking motor oil, wiper fluid and more to reassert their manhood. The ad, rightfully so, was deemed tone-deaf and caused a significant amount of backlash. It was viewed as a big, unnecessary loss for a company that has the difficult job of selling chocolate.

The company rebounded in 2010 when it launched its “Eat a Snickers” campaign featuring Betty White and Abe Vigoda getting full-body tackled during a pick-up football game. The ad garnered huge laughs, and the company replicated the campaign’s winning formula in the months and years that followed.

The lesson here is that in order to take advantage of things like placement and brand alignment, you need to know your audience. In 2007, Snickers assumed an ad featuring two manly men panicking after sharing an accidental kiss would align their brand with the NFL’s male demographic. This decision backfired and alienated consumers as a result. 

On gameday, audiences don’t want to be confronted with heavy subject matter, whether it’s through attempts at humor or not. They want to see geriatric TV stars tackled into a mud puddle. Understand what your audience will tolerate – and more importantly, what they will not – and you can capitalize on increased exposure in any situation while tying your brand more closely to the causes, events and brands you want to associate with.

Ad Spend

If you hoped to snag airtime during this year’s game, I’m sorry to report that ad space sold out back in November. In addition, a 30-second spot during this year’s game would set you back $5.6 million, up 107% from 2008. While that’s an insane number by any metric, a well-conceived ad can propel a company into the world’s collective psyche come Monday morning. 

Pepsi’s relationship with the NFL goes all the way back to their 1992 ad featuring Cindy Crawford that helped introduce a redesigned Pepsi can. The ad used star power and humor in equal measure to great effect. 

In a case of wild luck, Death Wish Coffee won a 2015 contest hosted by Intuit QuickBooks that earned them a free 30-second commercial during that year’s game. The exposure helped them double web traffic and annual sales.

The average small business invests “about 1 percent of its revenues into advertising.” This puts the game firmly out of reach for most businesses. What is applicable, however, is how we can utilize the previously discussed elements – counterprogramming, alignment and placement – to maximize the value of a dollar when it comes to ad spends. 

Knowing your audience, where they are looking to be engaged with and what they find valuable can guide an effective marketing strategy and turn any ad budget into a profitable exercise in advertising and brand awareness. A few hundred dollars can go a long way in a well-placed, highly-targeted Facebook ad campaign.

What to Look For

Will you be watching this year’s game? If so, pay close attention to the ads. As with every year, there will be massive victories and disastrous fails. What’s even more exciting will be watching how the winners further their lead in the brand wars and the losers try to save face. Stay tuned for our breakdown of this year’s ads following the game. 

Sam Scarcello
Sam Scarcello

Marketing & Content Manager

Sam is a detailed content curator with an acute sense for recognizing the finer details within a brand. His experience as a small business owner with a large social presence of its own helps him identify and personify the unique possibilities for each of our clients.

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