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Explaining the weirdness of Super Bowl movie and game trailers

What is going on?

Paramount Pictures

The Patriots are playing the Falcons during this Sunday’s Super Bowl and, while many of us have little clue what that means for professional sports, many folks reading this post are likely hoping for the first trailer or teaser for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

We’ve also already seen a good number of trailers and commercials that will be running during the Super Bowl, which seems a bit counterintuitive. Isn’t the point to make a splash during the game? Why release anything about your trailer now?

The important thing to remember is that, if you’re reading this, you’re likely not a part of the mainstream audience. And that audience is the target.

The Super Bowl is the most mainstream thing in America

Last year’s Super Bowl averaged 111.9 million viewers on television, with a peak of 115.5 viewers during the halftime show. This doesn’t account for streaming viewers, which would push the total even higher. It was the third most-watched event in television history.

To put the size of the Super Bowl into perspective, we can look at Game of Thrones. “Overall, Thrones is also up versus last year, averaging more than 23 million viewers per episode once all forms of viewing are counted (like repeats, streaming, DVR playback, etc),” Entertainment Weekly reported in June of last year. “That’s 15 percent higher than season five. Thrones is one of the very few dramas ever made that manages to grow its audience each season (AMC’s Breaking Bad was another).”

Or you can compare it to The Big Bang Theory, which is one of the most popular television shows on the air. “[The Big Bang Theory] ... averaged 8.4 million total viewers its first season,” The Wrap reported. “By the next year, that had grown to a cool 10 million. This year, in its ninth season, the show is averaging more than twice that, pulling in a whopping 20.3 million viewers per episode. (These and other numbers conform to Nielsen’s ‘most current’ metric, which counts seven-day delayed viewing where available.)”

The Super Bowl crushes everything on television, even without looking at streaming or time-shifted viewing. The appeal of the broadcast — whether you’re watching for the commercials or the game or just because it’s on and everyone else wants to watch it — is universal. If you’re a demographic that an advertiser would like to reach, you’re watching the Super Bowl. That’s the value of these ads, which become news on their own.

That’s why it’s safe to release them before the Super Bowl

Want to see Nintendo’s first-ever Super Bowl ad? Here you go.

Want to see a trailer for the trailer of the latest Transformers movie? Say no more.

There’s no reason to hide many of these trailers before they first air, because sites like Polygon who discuss pop culture and have an engaged and vocal readership will absolutely want to see them and it’s worth a quick story, but either our readers will still watch the Super Bowl or they weren’t planning on doing so anyway. So there are a lot of eyeballs to gain by releasing this stuff ahead of time, and virtually no risk.

These companies want to reach your parents and friends who may not be interested enough to click on a story just about a trailer, and the hope is that they’re able to expand their reach by grabbing viewers who wouldn’t normally watch a Nintendo commercial. A Super Bowl ad isn’t just about a light beer expressing its dominance to a market it already owns; it’s about taking a niche piece of hardware, television show or movie and seeing if you can expand its fanbase.

Advertisers don’t see these ads as the beginning and the end; they’re merely a part of the story. It’s all about creating a longer, sustained buzz around these products.

“Snickers is aiming to do that this year with the Super Bowl’s first live commercial, which will star Adam Driver from the HBO series Girls,” The New York Times reported. “The concept, which its public relations firm was pitching to news outlets as far back as December, will be accompanied by a 36-hour live stream, highlights posted to Facebook and behind-the-scenes footage from two social influencers. The extra effort will cost ‘several’ hundred thousand dollars, the company said.”

In other words, there’s an entire industry around advertising the ads.

Why does the media play along?

Well, for starters, the media isn’t a “thing”; it’s a variety of outlets in a variety of media that are trying to do a variety of things. But I hear you: What value does a trailer for a trailer bring anyone?

Advertising, no matter how you feel about it, is content. The bigger question would be why people watch and click on trailers for trailers, because no one would talk about this stuff if the demand for it wasn’t there.

But it’s not a cynical ploy for cheap clicks and attention. I watched the teaser for the Transformers: The Last Knight trailer before it was written up on this site because I wanted to see it. There’s likely already a conversation about most movie and game trailers among Polygon writers and editors before the story goes live; it’s not like we’re not as interested in this stuff as you are.

That discussion would have happened whether or not there was a story in the works, so why not share the trailer and our thoughts, so the conversation can happen in the comments for a story people want to read about trailers they want to see?

The Super Bowl delivers the rarest resource there is: attention

We may tune out during commercials or advertisements for most of our lives, but the Super Bowl is one of the rare times that people remain alert and interested in advertising throughout a good portion of the content those ads are supposedly “paying” for. The NFL has a lot of ways to make money, but delivering attention in a focused way is its most potent one.

And that attention spills over to the trailers, as well as the shows that air after the game itself. Then there’s the conversation that takes place on social media about the advertising, and in media outlets that cover the commercials as if they’re news — which, at least in the entertainment sector, they most certainly are.

That’s why you’re seeing at least some of them early, and that’s why the conversation is going to dominate so much in the next few days: Because people care, and that’s worth a lot of money to a lot of people.

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