Blog | Robert Davis 02.05.18

What’s the human cost of a Super Bowl spot?

We all know the numbers: all in, most brands will be betting something like ten million bucks on their Super Bowl commercials. Add in a huge live audience, tons of digital viewership and a giant pile of first party data, and that $10 million looks like a killer investment.

More killer Super Bowl math for the CMO
At that price it’s relevant to look into some of the other data on football – specifically, what the players give up in the spectacle that draws the fans. A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of American Medicine in 2017 studied the brains of 177 former football players, with a mix of pro, college and high school experience, and found that

  • 110 of 111 NFL players were diagnosed with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)
  • 48 of 53 former college players had CTE
  • Three of the 14 high school players had CTE as well

There are limitations to the study due to some acknowledged bias in the sample of the brains studied, since you can’t study the brains of players still living. But ask yourself: if we cut the numbers in half, would they be any less unacceptable?

Over the past three years, some colleagues and I have worked pro bono with the Concussion Legacy Foundation on programs to decrease the number of times kids are hit in the head. And hits are important, because as we have recently learned, it doesn’t take a concussion to trigger CTE. I count myself lucky to have been able to play a part in a successful effort to ban heading in youth soccer for players under 12, and also for having a chance to work on a new campaign to have kids play flag football until they’re 14 – an idea that’s getting some traction.

But Super Bowl spots are the ultimate ad experience!
Over the years I’ve hosted and attended Super Bowl parties with guest lists heavily tilted towards the ad industry. Some years, everybody talked during the game and focused their attention most eagerly on the spots. I get it. There’s no feeling like seeing your agency’s kick-ass, pull-out-all-the-stops spot during the big game.

But here’s another unique feeling I’ve experienced: sitting at a table with the wives and children of a couple of former NFL players, dead in their 50’s from CTE. Turning to talk to the sister and mother of an 18-year old, a former football player and suicide victim unable to overcome the cruel effects of multiple concussions. If we consider ourselves storytellers, these are also stories we have to pay attention to. And not just with well-meaning public service ads that don’t get a dime in paid media. Working together, we all need to put our real money to work finding better ways to build brands with that $10 million dollars – ways that don’t require the sacrifice of so many futures.

Now is the time to get on the right side of the CTE issue
Football is going to change a lot in the next ten years. Believe it or not, it may not survive. I don’t have a crystal ball, but it seems likely that the reckoning is coming for the cumulative toll in families ruined and lives cut short by football.

Luckily for us, as a creative industry, there are always other options. There are other sports, other media opportunities, and a world full of exciting ways to build powerful branded experiences – the kind of storytelling that captures the imagination and attracts prospects to your unique value, builds advocacy for your brand, inspires your employees and builds your business. Spectacles like the “big game” aside, isn’t that the hard work we all signed up for?