Super Bowl Spots at $3 Million Per 30 Seconds? That's a Bargain!

Last Updated Feb 4, 2011 2:29 PM EST

It's that time of year again, when people get all agog at the fact that Super Bowl ads cost $3 million this year for only 30 seconds. Seriously, folks: TV networks (Fox is this year's broadcaster) should actually be charging more -- and it has little to do with how big the audience is for the game.

Prices for Super Bowl spots have increased -- they came in at about $2.9 million last year. But these run-of-the-mill price hikes don't take into account the absolute explosion in online viewing of Super Bowl commercials.

In fact, given the way virtually every Super Bowl spot goes viral online, Super Bowl ads are much cheaper on a return-on-investment basis than they appear. We all know that come Monday morning or late Sunday night, most major media sites, ranging from YouTube to USA Today to Yahoo!, will have valuable real estate on their home pages devoted to all of the Super Bowl ads. No matter how bad your spot is, if you advertised on the Big Game, it will be there, and people will watch it.

An audience that wants to watch commercials!
This means that most Super Bowl ads can expect millions, if not tens of millions, more views of their commercials. And, arguably, those views are more valuable because those who watch them online actually went out of their way to watch them. Old Spice Man may be a particularly outsized example, but the original spot has almost 30 million views on YouTube alone -- or about 27 percent as many viewers as watched the actual game.

True, there may be plenty of duplicated views in that statistic, which there aren't in the raw Super Bowl rating. However, if advertisers wanted us to only see a commercial once, they wouldn't pay to air it again and again and again until we can recite every line of the script. Repeated viewings of a commercial do matter to advertisers.

Networks are still dinosaurs. Who knew?
And yet, Super Bowl ad rates continue to reflect day-of-game viewing only, as though the digital world didn't exist. This chart of Super Bowl ad rates shows a drip, drip, drip of mostly $100,000 gains per year in the last decade. Since 2003, there's only been one year in which rates jumped, according to NFL Research -- from $2.4 million to $2.6 million between 2006 and 2007. At that time, the YouTube era had barely begun, and the increase, if it existed at all, was a reflection of a hot economy.

Unfortunately, even as I argue that Super Bowl spots have a better return for advertisers than they used to, I don't expect that the network which airs the game next year will wake up and start demanding a major price increase. If they do, it will be because TV ratings were up, not because advertising on the Super Bowl paves the way for viral success. The time to do this was several years ago, when the phenomenon was new, and the networks missed the boat.