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Budweiser puppy commercial
courtesy Budweiser

This year, a 30-second Super Bowl ad costs as much as $5 million, up from last year's $4.5 million.

It's a spectacular amount of money for so little airtime, but dozens of companies have no problem forking over the cash. After all, a Super Bowl spot is probably the best shot an advertisement has at being seen by an enormous captive audience all year. Not only is the viewership astronomical, but many non-football fans actually tune in for the commercials themselves rather than the game.

Thanks to some surprisingly great comedy writing, hullabaloo around the Super Bowl commercials has been increasing for years, so much so that CBS did an extensive primetime production on Feb. 2 that counted down the 50 best of all time. It's the opposite of the radio-station brag—89 minute of Super Bowl ads broken up by 31 minutes of ... more ads.

With Super Bowl commercials an essential part of February's cultural core curriculum, it's hard to think that they aren't worth their magnificent expense. But do they actually influence sales?

Multiple researchers have studied the relationship between ad success and sales and the answer is usually a flat no. In 2014, Ad Age reported that communications firm Communicus found that 60% of Super Bowl ads didn't boost purchases—or even intent to purchase—though it did increase "brand awareness." Last year, Genesis Media conducted a study that found 90% of viewers were not likely to buy something in a Super Bowl ad.

The fact that the numbers aren't good does make sense when you think about it. Sure, some ads could work: man on couch sees delicious Snickers in Betty White Super Bowl ad, longs for delicious Snickers, and buys delicious Snickers in checkout line, noting how much he pined for it that Sunday on the couch as he chews. Or as MarketingLand noted, thanks to GoDaddy's unsavory Super Bowl ads, the company's domain name provider is now a household name. E-Trade's annoying baby got that company on the map as well.

For most of the other commercials, however, it's hard to see how they're working.

Budweiser and its sister brands have consistently been featured in the most-beloved advertising (capitalism!) since Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's French cabaret posters that are on cultured college students' walls worldwide. Bud Light's magic fridge, all those Clydesdales and puppies, the pilot-jumping-out-of-the-plane-to-rescue-the-beer—these ads are, frankly, masterpieces. But have these commercials shaken us out of the craft beer trend, or made any non-Bud lover eager to grab some Buds? Certainly not. The ads seem to be made for our enjoyment, not to sell beer. Budweiser's place in the market has been dropping for years, and though it's possible the ads could stem the hemorrhaging sales, that doesn't seem particularly plausible.

So if the ads don't move product, why are all the $5 million slots locked down as early as November? Maybe it's because the ads aren't supposed to actually sell product.

Confirming what we all know, Communicus CEO Jeri Smith told Ad Age that many popular Super Bowl ads aren't even aired after the game. If this is their best stuff, why don't these companies keep running them?

All signs point to a conclusion that Super Bowl ads are, to some extent, simply an expensive vanity project for wealthy companies. Each represents an opportunity to participate in Super Bowl Sunday's other "big game" by making the funniest, most-beloved ads. The Communicus and Genesis studies show that popular ads influence "brand favorability," and while that may not necessarily translate into sales, the Super Bowl provides a opportunity for a company to make an asymmetrical bet to get itself in the national conversation.

With the massive hype placed on Super Bowl ads, it's not a bad bet. A company would simply be paying $5 million as an entry fee to a pop culture forum that's pretty much guaranteed to involve the brand in contests for countless Monday morning lists of best Super Bowl commercials. If the commercial is good enough, there could be enough exposure through these means to justify the costs of airtime and production.

The Super Bowl commercial breaks, then, are like little film festival for which the biggest companies play rich uncle and pick up the tab. Winning this National Ultra-Short Film Festival usually means the company must be okay with playing second violin, or the timpani, behind the ad agency's best creative team. And they usually seem to accept this, which is probably why, as Communicus' Smith told Ad Age, people are significantly worse at remembering the brand in these entertaining Super Bowl ads than in their regular counterparts.

This sort of "brand awareness" type of goodwill is common in today's varied advertising model. It's what drives corporate sponsorships (which are huge in sports especially), product placement, budgets for witty social media interns tasked with spinning brands into your "friend," and Instagram influencers. With the emerging obstacles that face traditional advertising—decline of cable subscriptions and ad blockers for instance—setting aside $5 million for a Super Bowl ad fits into this campaign to get branding in front of eyeballs. The result may be disconnected from product sales, yet could still influence consumer behavior--purchasing included.

Not every company seems content with this model of entertaining instead of selling, and last year Budweiser actually appeared to break the mold that it helped create. In one ad, the company addressed its battle with craft beer head on, presenting it as an unpretentious blue-collar alternative to the IPA. But next to the advertising world's best comedy, it felt like a political attack ad.

Playing a good game on a court that small is difficult for any brand or advertising agency, but it's possible to provoke sales while winning over the public. Look at Errol Morris' Miller High Life ads, which revived the drowning brand at a time when American macro-lagers were hurting. On Super Bowl Sunday it's not easy for brands to win, but it is at least possible.