The enduring magic of Super Bowl commercials

Clock management is a crucial part of football, and never more so than during the biggest game of all. Best-laid plans can be scuttled because a few ticks here or there went astray.

And so it is during those times when the official game clock isn’t running and one of America’s great annual pastimes kicks in. If watching the Super Bowl is one of the nation’s ultimate family occasions, catching the commercials might be the most inclusive part of it all.

“Everyone loves the commercials,” Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield told me on Friday. “I remember getting almost as excited for that as for the game.”

Given that everyone from diehard football aficionados to even those with only a passing interest in the sport come together to enjoy and analyze the best ads, the pressure is on for advertisers to make the most of every second.

Great Super Bowl ads go down in folklore. Those that don’t hit the mark suffer the worst fate known to Madison Avenue: they are instantly forgotten.

“When it comes to the advertising world, the Super Bowl … is the Super Bowl,” Seth Winter, executive vice president of FOX Sports sales told me in a telephone conversation this week. “It is as big as it gets.”

In some ways, the bursts of commercials that break up the game are perfect for a modern audience accustomed to bite-sized chunks of entertainment.

Millions of dollars and thousands of hours of creative thought are invested into pieces of work that take up the briefest windows of time. The pressure to perform is on par with what the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs players are facing, albeit with less physical intensity.

“The Super Bowl is not for the weak of heart,” Winter said. “For a creative director, it can make or break their career. You need some cojones to put together a great Super Bowl campaign.”

Everyone has their own personal favorites. Some of the most widely acclaimed in history include the Old Spice classic from 2010, Cindy Crawford’s Pepsi moment in 1992, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird duking it out over a Big Mac and those subsequently irksome Budweiser frogs.

Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser and Bud Light, has won USA TODAY’s Ad Meter (which judges the most popular ads) no fewer than 14 times, while the National Football League itself crushed it last year with its epic fight for a ball featuring 40 players from across generations.

As usual, there will be plenty of variety across the spots, from entertainment to goods and services, charitable calls to action and political messages. According to Winter, expect a lot of long-form spots this year, with more placements of above 30 seconds than those of the typical length.

“There is a lot of storytelling, and a lot of it is very uplifting,” Winter added. “That’s something that just always seems to work. If you can tug at someone’s heartstrings using that period of time that you have their attention — those are the ones that really do well. Being funny works. Nostalgia works. Family and community always works.

“There is emotion, humor, star power — you will see a lot of celebrities. Overall, it’s getting more and more creative. and this one will be the best ever in terms of creativity.”

Huge teams put months of effort into making the commercials, but plans can be affected by tragic or unforeseen events. A campaign by Planters that involved the death of the Mr. Peanut character was sensitively altered after the passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and eight others in a helicopter crash.

The impact of the commercials on the viewing audience can be difficult to calculate — the numbers reflect how many people are watching, but not necessarily why.

However, a strong indicator was provided by the 2014 game hosted by the New York area. A 43-8 blowout in favor of the Seattle Seahawks — as they decimated the Denver Broncos — saw no dip in ratings at all, which was widely attributed to viewers sticking around to watch the commercials.

Super Bowl Sunday is one of America’s special days, when the most popular game in the country reaches its crescendo. The pageantry, the ceremony, the halftime show, the razzamatazz … it is all part of it. And the commercials are right up there as an integral cornerstone of it all, the first thing many people thing of.

“I’m sat down with my eyes glued to the screen when the commercials are on,” Miami homemaker Thelma Diaz told me. “When the game starts up again, I’m up getting food or making drinks.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that.”