08/02/2018 15:39 GMT | Updated 08/02/2018 15:39 GMT

The Best Super Bowl Ad Wasn’t An Ad

There really is nothing quite like the Super Bowl. Every year the sporting event meets pop concert meets TV special captivates a global sporting audience. This year’s game may have had the lowest US TV rating of any Super Bowl in 9 years, but it remains by far and away the most watched TV show to air in the States in the last year. With the NFL’s international presence continuing to grow, this remains one of the stand-out events of the global sporting calendar.

Of all the oddities that surround the Super Bowl – the halftime show, the outrageous bets you can place on the game and the MVP’s famous ‘trip to Disneyland’ – one of the most unique is the attention giving to the commercials aired during the game. With a 30-second spot during the game reportedly costing $5million each, the expectations are obviously huge. For the brands that do decide to invest in this prime-time spot, it becomes an opportunity to go bigger and more outrageous in their ads than at any other time of year. There is a huge amount of anticipation about the ads. An entire cottage industry has developed based on analysing and declaring the most effective and popular spots. This year Amazon’s ‘Alexa lost her voice’ spot seems to have been considered the consensus winner, with the NFL’s own dirty dancing spin-off also getting a huge amount of attention. Where last year was all about brands making powerful political or social statements, 2018 appears to have been the year when most returned to classic funny Super Bowl ad, always a crowd-pleaser. But for me, all these efforts were overshadowed by another ad timed to be released around the Super Bowl. Even though it wasn’t one that aired during the game, and it wasn’t really even an ad.

In the weeks leading up to the game, Facebook Watch released Tom vs Time, its new documentary series with the Patriots legendary quarterback Tom Brady. The 5-part series follows the 40-year-old throughout this year’s NFL season and in the run-up to the Super Bowl. It gives a unique behind-the-scenes perspective on Brady’s personal life, training routine and mentality, attempting to unpack what has kept him going long beyond the age an average NFL player starts to fall off.

What is particularly striking about the series, is that Brady has been an incredibly secretive and private athlete for many years, part of the mentality of his coach Bill Belichick. With this new all-access documentary released just before the Super Bowl, fans were given an insight they’d never had before. That meant that even though the piece was ultimately an hour and a half long advert for Brady, his ‘TB12’ training programme and Facebook’s new ‘Facebook Watch’ offering, the piece drove a huge amount of conversation. For two solid weeks the series stimulated story after story, about topics as diverse as Brady’s unusual massage routine, the way he expresses affection for his kids and the behaviour of his daughter. These may not have been the stories Brady wanted to come out of the piece, but they drew and more and more people in to watch the documentary, and overall it certainly paints a hugely positive portrait of Brady and his methods.

Across the five episodes currently published, the series has over 35 million views on Facebook Watch. Now you may say that figure is far lower than the rating for the Super Bowl, how can I think that Tom vs Time is the winner of the Super Bowl ad war? Well, while all those hilarious Super Bowl ads were airing on US TV, a significant portion of that audience was getting a beer, replenishing the mid-game snacks, or just simply talking about the game and not actively engaged in the commercials. Sitting down to watch a 15-20 minute episode of the documentary is an active process, it keeps the watcher engaged throughout, making it far more impactful than a 30 second spot that fades into the noise of Super Bowl Sunday. Sure, the ads shown during the Super Bowl are probably the most engaged with of any usual TV spot, people are looking for them and they drive a lot of traffic online for the days after the game. But if those ads feature in articles wrapping up the best Super Bowl commercials for a week or so after the game, Tom vs Time will continue to be relevant for weeks and months to come. The piece will stay on Facebook Watch, gaining more views and repeat views. Documentaries like this stimulate genuine engagement with such longevity that their impact goes far beyond the here today-gone tomorrow of a regular commercial.

I don’t want to knock the Super Bowl ads. Some of them are really funny and do drive genuine conversation. But a month from now, how many of them do you think we’ll remember? Certainly, they get laughs, but how many told us something new, or connected with us on an emotional level? Longer form pieces like Tom vs Time are the present and future of storytelling in sports marketing. It’s been done well before, and the smart brands will continue to use it to build real interactions that last not just today, this week or this month, but for years to come.