One of the largest sources of Earth-warming greenhouse gases tied to the Super Bowl — the most-watched U.S. sporting event — isn’t travel to the Big Game’s sunny destination or the electricity powering its halftime spectacle, like this year’s featured performer, Rihanna.
It’s actually the huge carbon footprint behind the buzzy Super Bowl ads.
The ads have a life during the broadcast and in online blitzes before and after Sunday’s matchup, and perhaps should raise alarm among the growing ranks of sustainably-minded consumers and investors who might shout about polluting manufacturing plants, but don’t apply the same scrutiny to the digital world.
Climate experts say change will require adjustments to everything from casting to production to digital ad buys. Plus, there’s little uniform tracking for how environmentally costly advertising is, say the companies trying to help the ad world, as well as television, streaming and movie productions, make operations greener.
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So, just how “dirty” are those pricy Super Bowl ads, which cost well into the millions for a 30-second chance to win over captivated viewers?
Planning, creating and displaying the 10 most popular ads online from last year’s Super Bowl, led by Amazon.com’s AMZN,
Can’t quite get your head around the figure? It’s the equivalent of about 2,800 flights from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the two cities featured in 2023’s Super Bowl LVII.
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“ The carbon footprint of last year’s 10 most popular Big Game ads is the same as roughly 2,800 flights from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the two cities featured in 2023’s Super Bowl LVII. ”
Why is the ad industry being targeted?
For starters, Super Bowl ads sometimes star jet-setting celebs whose air-travel habits are routine fodder for scolding climate-watchers.
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In recent years, many brands have begun enlisting not just one, but several celebrities in a single spot or campaign. From an emissions standpoint, though, that can add up fast—especially if celebrities commute to the shoot on private jets, which generate roughly two metric tons of CO2 per hour, according to a report from Transport and Environment.
If a celebrity traveling for business or pleasure has to fly from Los Angeles to Norway, for example, that private-jet route could generate up to 24 metric tons of CO2 emissions while moving very few people. That’s the same as roughly 60,000 miles driven by an average gas-powered RB00,
“Like every other ad, the carbon footprint of a Super Bowl ad is directly impacted by the creative choices that go into it,” Gabi Kay, co-founder of Green the Bid, another organization trying to make advertising sustainable, told Adweek.
“One private-jet trip from Los Angeles to Norway creates the same CO2 emissions as using a car for 60,000 miles.”
Of course, given the high cost to run the ads, budgets for climate awareness may not be a priority. In 2023, advertisers are paying an average of $7 million to air a 30-second long commercial during the Super Bowl LVII broadcast. Companies leverage this amount with much longer campaigns, reaching viewers through YouTube, broader social media, and other digital traffic.
Finally, because the ads are digital, and seemingly flit in and out of our lives, they don’t have the same visceral impact on public awareness as, say, deforestation or ocean plastic. Absent consumer pushback, what is there to nudge the ad industry into action? Brands themselves only report their carbon footprints on a volunteer basis, and few so far break down that footprint to single out their advertising impact.
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Good-Loop is one of a handful of companies trying to track, and reduce, the greenhouse-gas emissions of the online ad industry, including beyond major televised sporting events. But it’s a tricky market to track. Unlike pricey Super Bowl spots, which are secured months in advance, digital billboards are typically sold in automated, lightning-speed auctions that can involve dozens of different internet companies for every transaction. And once the bidding is over, the real energy use begins, with traffic via an untold number of power-hungry computer servers for every ad.
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Data centers account for around 2% of all global carbon emissions. In the U.S. alone, 0.5% of total greenhouse-gas emissions are attributed to data centers. That’s about the same as the U.S. commercial airline industry. Data centers are among the leaders taking steps to offset their emissions by buying trees or participating in the carbon-credit market, in which lighter polluters can swap credits with heavier polluters, as well as making water-reduction moves.
Can ads really get greener?
Because understanding the full picture of emissions is a great start for changes to the ad industry, Good-Loop developed software that works like an online cookie. Instead of monitoring browsing histories, it measures how many middlemen are behind each digital ad, then calculates the energy demand at each step along the way.
Plus, in addition to more sustainable ad creation, groups like Good-Loop are working to provide more visibility for Scope 3 emissions, which is the harder-to-track carbon impact up and down a supply chain. In the case of advertisers and the companies whose products they help promote, Scope 3 includes the emissions from the use of said products, not just what it took to make, promote and distribute them.
Certainly, to limit emissions related to Super Bowl-related digital advertising and in every corner of the entertainment business — especially if the world of celebrity endorsers care about the environment as much as they may claim — stars and production teams could demand working closer with publisher partners, use smaller video sizes when possible and avoid made-for-advertising sites, say the companies tracking these operations.
Good-Loop COO Ryan Cochrane feels optimistic that the ad industry wants this data and wants change.
“In 2023, I predict we’re going to see a real industry push to standardize the way marketers measure the amount of carbon emissions their digital advertising generates,” he said in an outlook from the company.
“As with any complex issue, there’re a million ways to interpret the data, including which variables you use to calculate the result,” he said. “However, there’s a real danger that when advertisers are called upon to meet their net-zero [emissions] commitments, they’ll simply use the lowest score available — not necessarily the right one. So expect ‘Adland’ to come together to establish what should and shouldn’t be included in the calculations.”
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