The hidden environmental cost of Super Bowl advertising

The hidden environmental cost of Super Bowl advertising

Super Bowl advertising generates a huge amount of energy that results in high emissions. Here are seven ways that brands can reduce the carbon cost of their campaigns.

The Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers may not take to the field at the Allegiant Stadium in Nevada until Sunday — but the battle for the Super Bowl is already well under way among attention-hungry advertisers.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most-watched global sporting events attracts eye-watering amounts of ad revenue — and the cost of involved in the big game goes up every year. This year, a 30-second slot costs a record average of $7m.

However, there’s another cost associated with the Super Bowl that’s often overlooked: the cost to the planet.

The carbon cost

Whether it’s through the production, broadcasting or consumption of them across TVs or digital devices, Super Bowl ads generate a significant amount of energy. This in turn leads to a substantial increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Around 70 ads are broadcast to an estimated global audience of 170m during the game, with around 50 minutes of ad time. But most emissions come from the digital activity surrounding these campaigns rather than the main broadcast. This includes pre-game teasers, social media promotion, website updates and post-game engagement. All in all, that equates to billions of digital ad impressions.

Exactly what level of emissions Super Bowl ads generate is difficult to calculate, due to the number of variables involved and the sheer scale of activity.

Focusing purely on the distribution and consumption of digital ads, there are different variables that can affect an ad campaign’s overall impact on the environment. These include the file size of the creative assets, the digital platform on which the content is viewed and the device used.

With 5-10m ad impressions generating the same amount of GHG emissions as a person flying from London to Nevada, you get a sense of the scale of the issue.

So what can advertisers do to reduce the carbon cost of their Super Bowl campaigns without affecting results? Here are some tips (based on Impact+’s methodology).

1. Size up the opposition

Before you start, it’s important to understand what you’re up against. That means evaluating, tracking and benchmarking the environmental impact of your competitors’ campaigns across all channels.

The good news is there are many helpful tools. These range from AdGreen’s calculator, which measures the carbon cost of ad production, to Impact+’s Environmental Sustainability Platform, which monitors and offers recommendations on how to reduce the emissions generated by digital ad campaigns.

2. A second can change the game

With every 30 seconds of airtime costing $7m, it’s no surprise most advertisers keep their TV spots to half a minute to reduce costs. But it’s a different story online, where brands run longer edits.

But every second an online video is played has an impact on GHG emissions. So, by cutting the length of their online videos, Super Bowl brands can boost their video completion rates while also significantly reducing their impact on the planet.

Put simply, by cutting a one-minute ad down to 30 seconds, a brand could halve the number of emissions generated by the creative asset. 

3. It’s a ‘weighting’ game

The weight of a brand’s creative assets significantly impacts emissions. This is a hugely significant factor at the Super Bowl, with brands splashing out millions on lavish films designed to catch the eye.

Glossy ads are great for the big screen, but you don’t need the same high-definition videos or high-resolution images when targeting people on smaller screens. You can reduce the weight without any perceivable loss of quality to the viewer, particularly on mobile. Techniques such as video compression can also help.

By choosing lighter video formats, marketers can often reduce emissions by around 38% per $1,000 spent on media. It can also improve the user experience, as viewers will not have to wait as long for ads to load.

4. A picture can tell a thousand words

The Super Bowl is one of the few events where you get “ads for ads”. These are usually five- to 15-second videos shared online to get people excited about whichever celebrity is starring in an ad.

Some of these campaigns are incredible, but as shown this year by brands such as Pringles and Doritos, sometimes a picture can be just as effective (if not more) at teasing a campaign.

A picture tells a thousand words — and it’s also better for the planet, with videos generating on average six times more GHG emissions than standard display creatives.

5. Keep your eyes on attention

Unseen ads generate unnecessary emissions, so by focusing on platforms that drive higher conversion rates rather than deliver higher reach and volume, Super Bowl advertisers can cut their carbon footprints.

Avoid ad placements with low viewability rates or poor video completion rates, and avoid spamming users at a high frequency.

6. Programmatic power-up

Advertisers can often reduce emissions by over 20% by streamlining their programmatic supply chains and reducing the number of intermediaries. Purchasing directly from publishers whenever possible further optimises efficiency.

7. Delivery is everything

Understanding your audience’s device usage and connection preferences is crucial to minimising emissions. For example, optimising delivery to focus on wi-fi users, who consume less energy, can reduce emissions by as much as 17%.

Wi-fi users are also more attentive as they are less likely to be on the move and will have fewer distractions.

In the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, advertisers could also reduce emissions by as much as 20% (depending on the country) by delivering their campaigns during off-peak hours and days when energy consumption and energy grids’ dependence on fossil fuels is lower.

A game of inches

By acting on some of these recommendations, brands can reduce the overall environmental impact of their Super Bowl campaigns by up to 80%.

But for brands serious about tackling the carbon footprint of their digital advertising, the Super Bowl is only the tip of the iceberg (a sizeable tip, admittedly). It’s a good start, but the path to truly sustainable advertising, like the Super Bowl itself, is a game of inches.

Only by making small, everyday changes to the way brands and agencies plan, distribute and activate their digital campaigns will we have any chance of meaningful change. Game on.

Audrey Danthony is chief product officer and co-founder of global sustainable tech platform Impact+ 

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