Missed Connections: Why Did Brands Ignore Gen Z at Super Bowl LVII?

By Fabio Tambosi, SVP Global Marketing at ESL FACEIT Group

Super Bowl LVIII had everything you would expect. Celebrities. Brands. Drama. But something was missing. And most of us probably didn’t notice.

And now that it’s squarely in our rear-view mirrors and we’re planning ahead for next year’s big game, it’s time to get honest—in every sense of the word.

Because, as a singular multi-million-dollar marketing mecca, the Super Bowl is the biggest game for all its players—and I’m not just talking about those that take the field. It’s a big—admittedly costly—bet for brands, too. And you can understand why. The 2024 game was the most-watched program ever, with more than 123M viewers across platforms, up +7% year-over-year from 2023, which set the previous record at 115M. All to say, the stakes have quite literally never been higher.

Not only is the audience significant in terms of scope, it’s also an audience uniquely primed for advertising. Research from Kantar shows that seven-in-ten consumers (71%), actually look forward to Super Bowl spots, and watch—and consume—them with enthusiasm.

And this year, thanks to the T. Swift effect, the game presented an even greater opportunity to speak to a broader and more diverse cohort. In fact, when you look closely at the demographic breakdown, just shy of 16M young adults aged 18-24 and 13M children aged 12-17 tuned in across FOX, CBS and Univision—roughly accounting for one-quarter of total viewership.

But the overall experience lacked relevance. Brands could’ve better engaged with them by tapping into their culture—which was a major miss.

2000 and late

Now it’s no secret that Gen Z are an influential demographic. Estimates back in 2021 suggested Gen Z’s spending power was in the avenue of $360B in the U.S. alone—a number that has surely gone up since. And this economic influence is growing by the day as they come of age and make their mark on the workforce.

Brands know this full well. And in recent years, they’ve proactively crafted Super Bowl content which taps into the interests of Gen Z audiences, leaned into gaming culture by leveraging popular creators like Ninja and TimTheTatman for their spots. Which makes sense, considering that nine-in-ten Gen Z identify as gaming enthusiasts.

Of course, brands used celebrities. That’s a Super Bowl mainstay. Unfortunately, most relied on nostalgia from the 90s and 2000s with A-list casts.

Play by play

Brands missed the opportunity to bring something—or at least someone—new to the table at this year’s big game.

Social media combined with the creator economy have effectively changed younger audience expectations’, over indexing on authenticity. But brands largely played it safe. They didn’t speak the right language. Or communicate across the right channels.

You have just a few seconds to catch Gen Z’s attention, which is a darn tight window, or they will keep scrolling. But we also know that they become extremely loyal once you’ve managed to capture their focus. We see this happy side effect in the world of esports clearly. Audiences are passive. Fans are engaged—wholeheartedly. And once audiences become a fan, they lock in and stay locked in. They are second-screening. Commenting. Following on Twitch. The average gaming viewer spends between 5-7 hours watching.

This kind of fandom is invaluable for brands. But you need to know how to unlock it. And it’s not going to be through a thirty-second spot with an aging Matt Damon. No offense Matt.

Going into over time

The brands that stand out at events like the Super Bowl are congruent. They are all at once generationally and culturally relevant.

Brands are more than shrines through which to worship celebrities. The key question to ask is, is your spot reflective of what you do every other day of the year? These key moments should be simply the beginning of a conversation with your audience which lasts all year long.

The onus is on marketing leaders to break the echo chamber. Gen Z wants to see content created by people like them. Their peers. And they want to be able to engage with this content over longer periods of time—and across a myriad of channels. Again, we know this. So why don’t we act like we know it?

Brands and marketers can do better than just chuck millions at an A-Lister and hope for the best. And if they do, at least give it to Millie Bobby Brown or Lil Nas X. Gen Z are no longer the future generation, they are very much the present with a huge spending power; they influence 76% of US household purchases.

If brands choose to play, the Super Bowl is a chance to start a conversation which can last a lifetime—not just thirty seconds.