The average NFL game lasts three hours from start to finish but contains only about a dozen minutes of action. TV broadcasters have become expert in filling the gaps between outbreaks of sport on the field with an intoxicating mix of anticipation, apprehension, and advertising. The drama and magic of football as a collective spectacle intermingles with branding messages urging me to buy more stuff. This past week I decided to find out exactly how much it would cost me to be the perfect consumer and buy everything I’m prompted to acquire during a game. Every car, every pizza, every beverage.
Below you’ll find the fruit of my labors: an exhaustive account of every commercial broadcast during the Thursday Night Football tussle between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns last week. In total, there were 115 commercials aired in the span of 3 hours and 22 minutes, equating to one every 1.75 minutes. Explicit branding was visible on screen for 50 minutes, whether in the form of discrete commercials or integrated into the game broadcast. That’s without counting the advertising signage inside Paul Brown Stadium and Bose, Nike, and Microsoft’s branding of gear used on the field and the sidelines.
Welcome to #brandscape 2014
While embarking on my imaginary shopping spree, I also recorded every brand name that made an in-stadium appearance, both during the TNF game and in highlights from previous games. Here's the full list: Bud Light, Jack Daniel's, Cambria, Kia, PNC Bank, FirstEnergy, Comcast Xfinity, State Farm Insurance, Fifth Third Bank, Pepsi, Bridgestone, Gatorade, Medical Mutual, Tostitos, Microsoft Surface, FRCH, PCM, Time Warner Cable, Geico, Miami Valley Gaming, Coca-Cola, Walgreens, John Morrell, Formica, Chicago Tribune, Chase Bank, MetLife, and Toyota.
A funny thing happened when I focused in on the brand exposure during the game broadcast. I finally saw the game through the advertiser’s eyes. The sporting action on the field was just the product, and it mattered only in relation to how many ads could be served alongside it. I felt a vague anxiety about the abundance of running plays at the outset of the game, which kept the clock moving and didn’t allow many pauses for the injection of commercials.
Even with a paucity of opportunities for ads, by the end of the first quarter I had already acquired four new cars, a set of spare tires, and a choice of insurers. I had enough food to last me a week, plus an Xbox One, a Droid Turbo, and a Bose soundbar to take care of my entertainment needs. My consumptive instincts were already fully sated, but the advertising juggernaut was just getting warmed up.
The second quarter exploited every small pause in play to inject a fresh ad. This was done either in the form of small 15-second spots or through the obligatory "this broadcast is brought to you by" messages that reiterated brands whose commercials I’d just seen. Advertisers clearly subscribe to the idea that the best way to learn is through repetition.
Pepsi had a one-minute commercial starring Andy Dalton and was also featured as part of promotional bundles from Papa John’s and KFC. The Pepsi and Gatorade brands, both owned by PepsiCo Inc., could also be seen on the scoreboard and elsewhere around Paul Brown Stadium. That’s what being the NFL’s official soft drink gets you: constant brand exposure in the pronounced absence of your most direct competitor (there were zero Coca-Cola ads). Microsoft was similarly the only game console advertised, with nary a peep about Nintendo or Sony.
All of this excludes the NFL’s own promo skits for the NFL Network, NFL Mobile, and NFL Shop. The paid ads and NFL video reels are intentionally designed to overlap rapidly and seamlessly. The commentators casually transition from talking about the history of the Ohio rivalry to the excellence of Mazda cars. It becomes difficult — or, if I’m not paying close attention, impossible — to distinguish between the sporting excitement most people tune in for and the paid messaging that has been laced into the broadcast.
By the end of the night, the constant reminders to buy something new to drive were replaced by well-timed advertising for a Sleep Number bed and Act Restoring Mouthwash. Those were some of the final items on a shopping list that ultimately amounted to a staggering $785,216.96. Though memorable for their subject matter, ads for erectile dysfunction pills comprise just a tiny fraction, and even beer isn’t as prevalent as I’d previously thought. More than half of the ads were about cars or food. Mazdas and Mitsubishis. McDonald's Dollar Menus and Red Lobster Ultimate Feasts. Advertisers are definitely not saying that NFL fans are fat and lazy, but, well, their ads kind of are.
The purpose of this undertaking was to articulate how saturated in advertising every game broadcast has become. Analogous numbers could be drawn from the typical NBA or MLB game, but the NFL is the clear leader both in popularity and ad density. For every three-hour contest that an NFL fan spectates, 50 minutes (or around 25 percent) is spent irradiated in the ember glow of brand messaging. Buy, drive, invest, consume, insure, consume some more, buy again. I can't help but wonder if the real price we pay for this entertainment isn't greater than the fictional bill I have compiled herein.