It’s that time of year when video marketers get together and wonder what their company or client could have done with the $5 million that will be blown on buying a 30-second TV spot during Super Bowl 2017. The traditional excuse has always been that the money will buy a ton of eyeballs. Well, just how many eyeballs are we talking about? Super Bowl 2014 was watched by 111.5 million US viewers in the United States. Super Bowl 2015 was watched by more than 114.4 million US viewers, which was the Big Game’s high-water mark in term of TV audience. Super Bowl 2016 was watched by 111.9 million US viewers. So, that’s an average of 112.6 million viewers.

Meanwhile, eMarketer estimates that YouTube had 180.1 million US users in 2016. eMarketer also estimates that nearly 85% of digital video viewers are YouTube viewers. Now, my mother was a math teacher. And she would have expected me to be able to calculate that an audience of 180.1 million YouTube viewers is 59.9% larger than 112.6 million network TV viewers. But, my father was a brand marketer. And he would have expected me to know that “1984,” the TV commercial that launched the Apple Macintosh during that year’s Super Bowl, had been a watershed event as well as a masterpiece in advertising. After “1984,” Super Bowl commercials became the most expensive, creative, and influential advertising on television. And dad would have asked, “How many people would watch a brand’s video ad online if it wasn’t a Super Bowl commercial on TV?”

Super Bowl Commercials on TV vs Online

It’s not clear that everyone who watches TV viewer is paying attention to the commercials. According to Google’s Consumer Barometer, 52% of people use their connected devices (smartphones, computers, and tablets) to go online while watching TV. Their use of multiple devices means that many people are multi-tasking, with 82% of their Internet usage unrelated to TV programing.

And even if people are attending Super Bowl parties, it’s not clear that they’re watching TV. Distracted viewing environment during Super Bowl parties explains why views of the digital video versions of some Super Bowl commercials spike AFTER the Big Game. For example, if you missed a TV commercial that someone else says was one of their favorites, then you can see the online version on Monday so you can discuss it with your friends, family, or colleagues, too. Of course, some people can’t wait to discover, watch, and share an exceptional video before everyone else is their social network.

This explains why so many Super Bowl advertisers upload their digital video ads weeks BEFORE the Big Game. Understanding the social dynamics that occur whenever you invite a group of friends, family, or colleagues to come to a party to watch a tent-pole event on your big screen TV, these savvy video marketers upload their digital video ad ahead of time so someone in the family room will shout to the crowd out in the kitchen, “Hey, here’s that video I was telling everyone about. Check it out!”

According to the Official YouTube Blog, “Advertisers that upload early do better overall.” The share of Big Game ads released on YouTube before game day grew more than 200% from 2008 to 2016. And if you analyze YouTube’s list of the Top 20 Super Bowl ads released during those years, then you’ll find that 90% of the ads were released on YouTube before the Super Bowl that year, including Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” and Volkswagen’s “The Force.” The importance of pre- and post-game viewing of Super Bowl ads is reflected in the decision to change the voting process for USA TODAY’s Super Bowl Ad Meter. The big change in 2017 is that voting on ads that have been revealed to the public will begin on Wednesday, February 1, at noon ET. Another notable change is that voting will remain open until 1 a.m. ET/10 p.m. PT the night of the Super Bowl.

All of this has turned Super Bowl Sunday into a tent-pole event that starts right after the NFC and AFC Championship games and lasts about a fortnight. This also means that the Super Bowl commercials seen on TV are only the tip of the digital video advertising iceberg.

Super Bowl Commercials: The Facts

Now, mom taught me the value of looking at critical data to find the right answer. And dad taught me the importance of analyzing key trends to ask the right question. But as I’ve also learned over the years, tactical advice isn’t neatly summarized at the bottom of a long column of critical data. And strategic insights don’t magically appear after glancing at key trends in the digital video marketing business. You need a combination of knowledge and imagination to provide interesting information or insightful analysis that is beyond obvious.

For example, the folks in Global Communications & Public Affairs at Google recently shared the list below of the top 20 Super Bowl ads released between 2008 and 2016, which is ranked based on their views on YouTube in January and February of the year in which they were released. Check out the list, but here’s the top 5:

  1. Budweiser Budweiser Super Bowl  – “Puppy Love” (2014)
  2. Clash of Clans Clash of Clans: Revenge (2015)
  3. Volkswagen The Force: Volkswagen Commercial (2011)
  4. Budweiser Budweiser Super Bowl “Lost Dog” (2015)
  5. Pokémon #Pokemon20: Pokémon Super Bowl (2016)

The folks at Google also supplemented the list above with this additional data:

  • The top 20 Super Bowl ads on YouTube from the last nine years have driven over 440 million minutes of watch time — the equivalent of watching the Big Game over 1.8 million times.
  • Among the top 20 Super Bowl ads on YouTube (2008-2016), February accounted for nearly 30% of the total new channel subscribers the year each ad was released.
  • Iconic ads continue to thrive on YouTube long past their initial release. Some of the most memorable ads from previous years, like Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” (2010), Ram Trucks’ “Farmer” (2013) and GoPro and Red Bull’s “Red Bull Stratos – The Full Story” (2014) collectively garnered over 5 million views in 2016, years after their original airing. And combined, these ads have driven over 92.5 million lifetime views.
  • Outside the U.S., Super Bowl ad viewership on YouTube has grown over 28x since 2008. In 2016, the three countries outside the U.S. that watched the most Super Bowl ads on YouTube are Canada, the United Kingdom and Russia. Some of the most popular Super Bowl ads internationally included: Pokemon’s “#Pokemon20: Pokémon Super Bowl Commercial,” Coca-Cola’s “Coke Mini (Hulk vs. Ant-Man),” and Heinz’s “Wiener Stampede – Extended Cut.”

The folks at Tubular Labs provided me with data on the number of views and engagements that each of the top 10 Super Bowl videos uploaded over the past four years had received.

  1. Clash of Clans: Revenge Clash of Clans (2015) 150.2M Views, 626K Engagements
  2. Official Mobile Strike Super Bowl 50 (2016) 103.3 Views, 41K Engagements
  3. Budweiser USA: | “Puppy Love” Budweiser (2014) 59.5M Views, 2.3m Engagements
  4. Budweiser USA: #BestBuds Budweiser (2015) 30.8M Views, 940K Engagements
  5. Mtn Dew Kickstart: Puppymonkeybaby Mountain Dew (2016) 28.1M Views, 373K Engagements
  6. The Chase | Hyundai Super Bowl Commercial (2016) 26.1M Views, 16K Engagements
  7. Skittles Super Bowl XLIX Commercial: Settle It (2015) 25.5M Views, 1.3K Engagements
  8. #Pokemon20: Pokémon Super Bowl Commercial (2016) 25.3M Views, 468K Engagements
  9. Skittles: “The Portrait” w/ Steven Tyler (2016) 24.3M Viewsm 57K Engagements
  10. Nissan 2015 Super Bowl Commercial | ‘With Dad’ (2015) 22.9M Views, 73K Engagements

Tubular Labs also provided an analysis of some of the trends that they’d spotted, including:

  • Super Bowl commercials on brand channels earn 1,356% MORE views than ads or commercials on average creator channels.
  • Views of Super Bowl content are already up 8% in 2017 compared to the same time last year.
  • All time cross-platform views of Super Bowl content has surpassed 8.5 billion. All-time cross-platform views on TV spots or ads placed online is over 2.2 billion of those views.
  • Average year-over-year growth for Super Bowl content was 52% (views) and 63% (engagements) from 2015 – 2016.

So, I get by with a little help from my friends. But, have you spotted a couple of other key trends? Yes, Volkswagen’s Super Bowl ads did well in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. In addition, both Budweiser and Bud Light Big Game ads did well in 2014 and 2015. So, what are we missing? Well, Volkswagen decided to sit out Super Bowl 2015 and 2016 – plus the brand isn’t planning to run a TV commercial during Super Bowl 2017. And although Budweiser ran a TV commercial during Super Bowl 2016 and will be running one during Super Bowl 2017, the puppy featured in “Puppy Love” in 2014 and “Lost Dog” in 2015 has disappeared.  And Toyota is sitting out this year’s Big Game, too. What happened?

Here’s my scientific wild-ass guess: People loved the ads, but didn’t buy the brands being advertised. Or, as I observed three years ago in ReelSEO just before Super Bowl 2014, real-time results from the previous year showed that consumers had the strongest response to Budweiser’s “Brotherhood” commercial, which featured a 7-day-old Clydesdale foal — “significantly outperforming everything else. The strong emotional connection, driven by a strong musical track, clearly drew in their respondents and brought them along. Despite that power, their respondents reported little to no intent to purchase while watching the spot. By contrast, some earlier ‘Budweiser Black’ spots weren’t quite as compelling as entertainment, but they drove activation at four times the levels of the Clydesdale spot.”

Or, as I observed two years ago in a presentation to Fionn Downhill’s at the Thunderbird School of Global Management right after Super Bowl 2015, “Volkswagen’s ‘The Force’ (has) more than 61.8 million views and close to 5.3 million shares. This Super Bowl ad generated a 127% uplift in website traffic and drove the sale of 20,902 units….VW’s Super Bowl 2014 ad, ‘Wings,’ didn’t get as many views or shares. So, Volkswagen decided it wouldn’t advertise during Super Bowl 2015.”

Super Bowl Advertising Tips

So, here’s some tactical advice: Stop using “views” to measure your success. Start using “brand lift” instead. Last September, Google extended the capabilities of Brand Lift to TV campaigns. Google also revealed that early tests found that YouTube generates almost 2x searches per impression than TV. Among the people who commented on Google’s announcement of Brand Lift for TV was Paige Parrent, the Digital Media Manager of Volkswagen Marketing.  She said, “Brand Lift now presents us with a way to specifically, credibly, and scientifically compare the effectiveness of cross media campaigns. This is interesting to Volkswagen as we move closer to measuring TV and digital platforms (like YouTube) on even ground.”

Finally, here’s a strategic insight that you can take to the bank: Some of the brands that have uploaded several of the most successful Super Bowl ads have re-discovered a very old truth. As David Ogilvy said in his classic book, Ogilvy on Advertising, “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”