My first memory of the Super Bowl was watching William "The Refrigerator" Perry score a one-yard rushing touchdown to help an iconic Chicago Bears team land Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots in 1986.
American Football had really taken off in my home country of England and the annual late-night Sunday Super Bowl party became a fixture on my social calendar. We particularly loved the idea that a massive guy like "The Fridge" (as we called him) could play a sport at the highest level and become a star.
The gruff, mustachioed head coach Mike Ditka creating plays from the sideline like a well-honed orchestra conductor also caught the imagination of British fans.
Teams came and went, and Brits picked up on the 49ers, Giants, and Cowboys as they took their turns winning the Bowl.
It really came back on my radar in 2002, when I watched the first post-9/11 Super Bowl at my sister’s house in Boston, Massachusetts in which the New England Patriots finally broke their duck and defeated the St Louis Rams 20-17.
We joined a million-plus fans in the city the next day to welcome the Super Bowl XXXVI-winning team back to Boston in biting cold weather the like of which I’d never experienced before.
It was the launch of Tom Brady into superstardom, and winning kicker Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal to secure the game in a thrilling finale even made him a household name for a while.
It was a highly emotional event, and the memory of Irish rock band U2 performing Beautiful Day at half time as the names of the 9/11 victims scrolled down the screen will always live with me.
The Super Bowl is obviously a massive deal in the US, but it is now also a truly global occasion and, as we contemplate Sunday’s Super Bowl 50 (seems wrong not labeling it L, but I guess we have NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to thank for that), it’s worth noting the UK is the country tweeting most about #SB50 outside North America, according to social media metrics analyst Brandwatch.
The US accounts for 86% of tweets, Canada is next, followed by the UK, then Ecuador, and India. London’s Wembley Stadium has hosted a regular season NFL game every year since 2007, and two games each year will be played at England’s national stadium until 2020, so interest is growing in America’s national sport in the same way the US is getting onboard with Premier League soccer.
Another connection this year is that UK snooze-rock band Coldplay will provide the half-time "entertainment" during the Carolina Panthers/Denver Broncos matchup on Sunday.
From a communications and marketing point of view, the Super Bowl has become an absolute phenomenon, in a world where audiences are fleeing TV advertising with a vengeance, preferring to watch content on catch-up and ad-free.
The Super Bowl might not match the 3.2 billion global TV reach of the soccer World Cup, but it is still a truly live appointment-to-view experience: 115 million consumers from the biggest economy in the world are expected to watch the live CBS telecast on Sunday, which if achieved will be the highest US TV audience in history.
That’s a potential one-off audience that cannot be missed. Ad slots are selling for up to $5 million for a 30-second segment, a massive investment for any company, especially those smaller brands that bet the house on the Bowl and blow most of their annual marketing budget.
A Super Bowl ad can be a big gamble depending how the game goes. Not every clash ends in a last-minute field goal that keeps fans’ attention for the duration. Sometimes the contest is pretty much over by half time, as was the case in 2014 when the Seattle Seahawks thrashed the Denver Broncos.
In those cases fans inevitably become disengaged with the event and more interested in their socializing, and an expensive multimillion ad investment can start to look ill-advised. But, despite this, the advertising game has become almost as big a deal as the on-field action, with brands including Budweiser, Snickers, Hyundai, Michelob, Mini, and Honda just some of those building up to the big day with buzz, previews, and extended content.
But the Super Bowl shouldn’t be seen as a complete reinvention for broadcast media advertising. Interacting with fans and stimulating conversation on social media is now just as important, with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube especially popular for brand communications teams, as PRWeek’s excellent analysis this week by Jacqueline Renfrow shows.
KFC is set to unveil another new Colonel Sanders and has been working with Edelman over the past month to activate the campaign. Many other firms will be working overtime this weekend.
There is unlikely to be another Oreo ‘Dunkin’ in the Dark’ moment, but real-time marketing, social campaigns elevating broadcast advertising, or guerilla campaigns aiming to pick up on the buzz of the event without shelling out millions of greenbacks will all be in evidence.
Most big brands will be rolling out some sort of comms strategy around the Super Bowl, and it’s going to be just as interesting to see who wins on that front as it is between the warring quarterback superstars Cam Newton and Peyton Manning.
"The Fridge" is not in a good way these days, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from severe diabetes, unlike his former Chicago Bears colleague Ron Rivera, who is now head coach of the Panthers and will play a key role in Sunday's match. I wish both of them the best in their respective challenges.
This year I’ll be reacquainting myself with a different fridge: one filled with beers and unhealthy snacks in honor of the occasion - have a great Super Bowl weekend America!