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What the 2018 World Cup Tells Us About the State of Advertising

The 2018 World Cup tournament is still underway this week in Russia. But based on the early TV ratings reports, viewership here in the US hasn’t been strong. Thanks to unexpected factors like the absence of the US team and many matches’ early start time, overall ratings are down 42% compared to the US audiences that tuned in for the 2014 event in Brazil. But instead of taking this lackluster performance at face value, many of today’s smartest advertisers are taking a closer look at this year’s World Cup TV ad campaigns and discovering some surprising revelations. Here are three key lessons TV advertisers should keep in mind based on this year’s World Cup ad campaigns.

It’s a Chance to Get Unconventional with Ad Strategy
Most advertisers associate high-profile sporting events like the World Cup with multi-million dollar ad buys. After all, one recent news story noted that an official sponsorship with FIFA can cost upwards of £100 million ($132 million). This high price tag forced many brands that wanted to be associated with this year’s World Cup to experiment with non-traditional guerilla-style ad campaigns. One example is shoemaker New Balance, a company that sees real value in running a campaign outside of traditional official sponsorship channels. “There are hundreds of brands that activate outside these sponsorships, so clearly there is a benefit,” said Kenny McCallum, general manager of global football at New Balance. “There has to be otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.” New Balance will focus its creative energies at this year’s event on a campaign featuring YouTube “vloggers” as they explore Russia, the 2018 tournament host country.

It’s a Chance to Reach American Viewers Who Are More, Not Less, Engaged
It’s easy to assume that because the US team didn’t qualify for this year’s World Cup that American fans don’t care about this year’s tournament. But the absence of the US team from this year’s event might turn out to mean that US fans were more engaged with the games and ads than they would have been if they were mere casual soccer viewers. Consider the results of a World Cup ad performance study released by Instart, which found that American fans were more engaged with World Cup ad creative than their British counterparts. 65% of American World Cup viewers said they were likely to be “impacted” by ads during the event compared to just 52% of English fans. Meanwhile 37% percent of Americans reported watching at least 60 seconds of a World Cup ad compared to just 32% of British viewers. Both of these stats suggest that the fans who did tune in for games cared more, not less, about engaging with the event content.

It’s a Chance to Use Digital to Complement TV
Last but not least, this year’s World Cup ad campaigns were a great reminder that TV and digital aren’t competitors: they’re actually great complements. There are plenty of examples of smart advertisers at this year’s World Cup using digital campaign elements to help “fill in the gaps” during breaks in the TV action happening before, during and after the games. Visa is one advertiser that built a multi-channel ad campaign with TV at its core. The credit card company used Swedish soccer star (and current LA Galaxy player) Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the central focus of its 2018 World Cup TV sponsorship. But the effort didn’t just stop at TV. Visa supplemented its main TV creative with PR placements on Jimmy Kimmel Live and social media, both of which helped to extend the campaign’s reach and reinforce its main message.

This year’s World Cup has presented advertisers with a series of new challenges and new opportunities. The lack of a “home” team for some US fans may have limited viewer tune in. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that this year’s fans were any less engaged or excited about the event. In addition, many advertisers used this year’s event to experiment with new strategies, including guerilla-style ad campaigns, and marketing programs that extended TV campaigns into other mediums like social media and YouTube. We don’t yet know for certain who will take home this year’s World Cup trophy. But regardless of who wins on the field, advertisers have already gathered some important lessons about what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to World Cup ad strategy.