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From left: Mike Myers and Dana Carvey reprise their Wayne's World characters, along with Cardi B, in an Uber Eats commercial scheduled for the Super Bowl broadcast on Feb. 7, 2021.UBER EATS/The New York Times News Service

For the second year in a row, Canadian viewers will be barred from watching the slick U.S. ads during this Sunday’s Super Bowl, forced to the sidelines as Americans in their social-media feeds laugh about Cardi B partying with Wayne and Garth in an Uber Eats spot, or wondering how wise it was for the controversial stock market trading app Robinhood to be splashing out on a 30-second buy.

But newly released data suggest that rules set down by the national broadcast regulator, which allow CTV and TSN to block the multimillion-dollar U.S. commercials and instead insert ads aimed at Canadian viewers – a practice known as simultaneous substitution, or simsub – brought in about $10-million more revenue and helped Canadian marketers reach millions of extra viewers during last year’s game. But with a possible record number of Canadians expected to tune into the broadcast Sunday night, some industry experts believe domestic marketers are missing a huge opportunity to engage with a rare mass audience.

This year’s Super Bowl ads are selling in both the United States and Canada for approximately the same rates as they did in 2020, reflecting the continuing unease in both national economies because of COVID-19.

But that still means CBS, this year’s U.S. broadcaster, is charging an average price of US$5.6-million for a 30-second spot.

The Canadian ad spots are a comparative steal. According to figures provided to The Globe and Mail by the data agency Standard Media Index (SMI), CTV charged an average of $197,150 for a nationally aired 30-second spot in 2020. That price was up 143 per cent over 2019, when simsub was not in effect because it had been outlawed just for the Super Bowl by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. (That ban was struck down last year.)

A Squarespace commercial scheduled for the Super Bowl broadcast on Feb. 7, 2021.Squarespace/The New York Times News Service

With 86 spots sold, the broadcaster brought in an estimated $17-million, up from an estimated $7-million for the 2019 game.

Advertisers may have wondered whether they got their money’s worth with the steep price hike. Viewership for the 2020 game in the English-language market hit an average of 7.9 million, but that was up only about 83 per cent from the average 4.3 million viewers in 2019, according to the TV ratings agency Numeris Inc.

“This was definitely a big increase in price, but it still represents very good value when compared to the U.S. last year,” Darrick Li, managing director of SMI in Canada, said in a statement. “Even with an audience one-tenth that of the U.S., it’s a significantly lower CPM [cost per thousand viewers], resulting in a valuable and attractive program for Canadian advertisers.”

Canadian media is coming off a disastrous year, when the industry is inclined to celebrate any bright spot such as the Super Bowl. Data from SMI indicate the English-language domestic market suffered a 19-per-cent drop in year-over-year advertising spending in 2020, which included a 48-per-cent drop during the first full three months of the pandemic lockdown, April to June of last year. But by the fourth quarter, spending was off only 6 per cent according to SMI.

Those in the Canadian industry expect near-record levels of viewership for this year’s Super Bowl, at least in the English-language market. (Last year’s French-Canadian viewership averaged about 1.7 million viewers, up more than 40 per cent from the 980,000 average viewership of the 2019 game. The ratings were believed to have benefited from the presence of local hero Laurent Duvernay-Tardif playing for Kansas City.)

Chalk it up to COVID-19. “We’re so desperate to look forward to something,” says Brooke Leland, senior vice-president of national media design and marketing for the media-buying agency Cossette Media in Toronto.

Anheuser-Busch's Super Bowl commercial.Anheuser-Busch/Reuters

Leland believes there will be more of what she calls co-viewing: sports fans who might have otherwise headed out to bars and Super Bowl parties instead drafting other family members, who might not have otherwise bothered turning on the TV, to watch alongside them. “Canadians, now more than ever, are grasping for that connection to other humans. We’re looking for any reason to party. We’ll even do it with our family.”

Still, she suggested that Canadian marketers are not using the Super Bowl to its full potential, as a launch pad for a year-long campaign. “Clients and [Canadian] brands could do us a favour by running really fresh content, rather than ads we’ve seen for a few months.”

That sentiment is echoed by Michael Aronson, a creative director at dentsu mcgarrybowen in Montreal. The Super Bowl “is an opportunity to be very creative with your brand. People are looking for entertainment during this time. If you’re showing me a sofa at a [particular] price point, that’s not really resonating with me while I’m trying to be entertained by the football game, or by The Weeknd during halftime.”

That’s why U.S. marketers are once again following the playbook of high-gloss, expensive, sentimental, humorous, and celebrity-driven spots, such as an energetic 90-second epic, airing on Sunday, in which Will Ferrell, Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson travel from the United States to Finland and Norway (or maybe Sweden) in an ad for General Motors’ push into electric-vehicle development.

“What brands in the U.S. have been so good at doing, ultimately, is the advertising that they create brings people together. It becomes [a topic of] conversation,” Aronson says. “That conversation takes place in social [media], in the digital space. So, how can Canadian advertisers take advantage of that, and give a platform for that conversation to take place?”