Cryptocurrency and sports gambling brands are spending big on Super Bowl ads. It may not be an easy sell.
A Super Bowl advertisement is supposed to entertain, to tease, perhaps titillate consumers all in the service of amplifying a product or brand.
It’s not meant to be a 30-second how-to video. And the newest players in this arena won't treat it as such, even if their products remain something of an enigma.
As more than 100 million viewers in the USA tune into Super Bowl 56 on Sunday, they'll get the usual comfort food of products during the much-anticipated commercial breaks – fattening snacks, big-brand macrobrews, cars and trucks designed to embolden the consumer's way of life.
Super Bowl Sunday is also a measure of cultural currency, and for two nascent and at times controversial industries – cryptocurrency and sports gambling – the big game means go time.
FTX and Crypto.com will mark cryptocurrency's first foray into Super Bowl advertising, while DraftKings and Caesars will tout their sports betting operations on behalf of an industry that's legal in slightly more than half the states. Ardent sports fans will surely recognize the brands – that DraftKings guitar riff haunts seemingly every broadcast, while it's hard to escape Matt Damon, Tom Brady and other celebs shilling crypto – but millions more casual viewers could be left scratching their head.
That's OK, says FTX founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried. The why and how can be taken care of later, so long as the audience learns the who.
"It's hard to explain a product in 30 seconds," Bankman-Fried says. "And in some cases, that makes sense. But in other cases, the goal is also, a lot of people already have some sense of what it is, have some incentive to check it out, and this is a prompt for them to think about that again.
"Rather than thinking about it as, 'We are trying to give a comprehensive overview of how you use our product in 30 seconds,' which is something we can't do."
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Crypto and gambling are jumping in at an expensive time – 30-second Super Bowl ads range from a record $6 million to $7 million, and a national recovery from the pandemic enticed brands such as Budweiser (returning after a brief absence that broke a 37-year Super streak) and Lay's (a 17-year hiatus) back into the fray.
The newcomers land in the mainstream as upstarts carrying some baggage – sports gambling was long viewed as verboten by leagues and probably will be indefinitely off-limits in hard-line states. And the ethics of celebrities with financial safety nets prodding everyday Americans to invest in NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and coins came into question after the market lost more than $1 trillion of value in January.
The greater challenge – and why the Super Bowl slot is so alluring – is gaining separation within industries that resemble the Oklahoma land rush as corporations jockey for relevance and sustainability.
"Like a lot of new industries, everyone is trying to establish their own corner," says Sharon Otterman, chief marketing officer of Caesars Sports and Online Gaming. "There's great competitors in this space. We've been focused on carving out our own place.
"We're always going to have the most competitive offers and odds out there."
There are bound to be winners and losers and consolidation in the sports gambling and crypto markets. Although the industries at large and the largest players within them look sustainable, their desire to make a Super splash inspires memories of another sector that pushed in all its chips on the big game – and lost badly.
A costly 'ego trip'
The 2000 Super Bowl is a fond remembrance – or cautionary tale – for veteran ad watchers, who dubbed it the "dot-com Super Bowl," only to see many of its participants out of business even before training camps opened for the next NFL season.
This was Silicon Valley's first wave of dot-com cash, when venture capitalists propped up paper tigers and figured profitability could take a very deep back seat to "buzz" and "brand awareness."
Years before Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon became the linchpins of the economy and, truthfully, our lives at large, a gaggle of wannabees shot for the sky and crashed.
Pets.com trotted out a singing sock puppet; the website went broke and sold its domain to PetSmart.
A company called Netpliance was, sadly, ahead of its time, touting a smaller electronic device and asking viewers, "What if you could do the internet without a computer?" (Apple responded seven years later with the iPhone).
Then there was Epidemic.com, a "viral marketing firm" that essentially asked users to spam their friends with banner ads every time they sent an email. The company had just 60 employees when it spent $2 million on a 30-second spot. Mercifully, for our inboxes and our states of mind, the company was out of business by June 2000.
There's no idea bad enough to fend off an overwhelming level of hubris.
“Advertising and the Super Bowl is an ego trip for the company that creates the advertising and for the advertiser who says, ‘Hey, we advertised on the Super Bowl,’” says Glenn Gerstner, dean of the College of Professional Studies and an associate professor of sports management at St. John's University. "Paying $6.5 million has to be completely outsized to the reach. There has to be a huge premium because it's the Super Bowl.
"Most ad decisions are made on math. This can be a complete ego trip."
Bankman-Fried says FTX definitely did not take a ready-fire-aim approach to going big. Its Super buy dovetails with a broader alignment with sports, from an agreement with Major League Baseball to become its official crypto exchange brand to counting Tom Brady among its celebrity endorsers.
"We want to make sure that before we went out with something like a Super Bowl ad, that we were comfortable where we were, that we felt like we were ready for it and that this wasn't going to be our one advertisement," says Bankman-Fried, who calls athletes "some of the best ambassadors in the world."
"This was just one piece of a bigger picture," he says. "My sense is that's mostly true, but I do think there's some echoes of (the dot-com Super Bowl) with some pieces of this."
Cryptocurrency and sports gambling figure to be on slightly firmer ground than their dot-com predecessors. And the big game's lineup still reflects a more traditional formula for success.
Budweiser's return – complete with Clydesdales – is a leading indicator that the market is swinging up after ad rates remained flat from the 2020 to 2021 game. Toyota, Frito-Lay, Pringles, General Motors – all are in. They will enjoy the luxury of merely courting younger consumers, safe to follow well-trod paths instead of letting the world know who they are.
"It's just a symbol of where the brands are and their life stage," Daniel Blake, Budweiser's vice president of marketing, tells USA TODAY Sports. "Newer brands, newer companies, they use the Super Bowl platform for a different objective, primarily to build awareness of their company name or product they offer. I will say, for a legacy brand like Budweiser, people are looking to what we have to say on this type of stage, and I think that's very unique.
"There aren't very many other companies where people are actively wondering what the XYZ commercial is going to be or what it's going to say. But people want to know what the Budweiser commercial is going to be. And we take that interest really seriously, with a ton of thought and a ton of care."
Please bet responsibly
Caesars and FTX are mindful that although their companies are on solid ground, their customers best approach with caution. Caesars purchased airtime on the pregame show in markets where gambling is legal to air a spot featuring the Mannings discussing the merits of responsible gaming.
The crypto industry learned a cautionary lesson when investors sued Kim Kardashian and Floyd Mayweather after the influencer and former boxer promoted an emerging currency called Ethereum Max.
"Are you guys into crypto????" Kardashian wrote in a post on Instagram, affixing only the hashtag #ad to suggest she was paid for the placement. "This is not financial advice but sharing what my friends just told me about the Ethereum Max token!"
The token lost nearly 97% of its value from its peak after Kardashian's post, prompting a class-action lawsuit filed in California.
The takeaway: Please try this at home, but within reason.
"The biggest thing I'd say is we are not trying to give them financial advice here," Bankman-Fried says. "We're not trying to tell them what's going to happen to prices, that particular coins are going to do well or not.
"We would love to get our name and our brand out there, but we don't want to be up there telling them, 'Hey, Bitcoin's going to be at price X by the end of the month. Buy now!' or anything like that."
FTX and Crypto.com have kept their ad themes under wraps. Some of the greatest Super Bowl ads satirized emerging trends in real time, so perhaps they'll even be the target of a winking jab.
An undeniable winner from that 2000 "dot-com Super Bowl" was E-Trade, which featured a pair of dancing chimpanzees and an elderly gentleman in a garage, with no narration.
"We just wasted $2 million," the kicker read. "What are you doing with your money?"
As if to complete this circle of life, E-Trade is back on the Super Bowl broadcast, bringing back the talking baby that debuted in 2008 and hasn't been seen since 2014.
E-Trade survived long after its foray into the 2000 Super Bowl, the upside of having a tangible product people actually use.
"It's like they were drunk on all aspects of their business," St. John's Gerstner says of the class of 2000.
A more sober era has prevailed – even at $6.5 million for a 30-second exposure to mysterious currency.