Super Bowl ads aren’t just expensive, they’ve got a costly carbon footprint

One of the biggest sources of earth-warming greenhouse gases associated with the Super Bowl — the most-watched US sporting event — isn’t the trip to the Big Game’s sunny destination or the electricity that fuels its halftime spectacle, like this year’s leading lady Rihanna.

It’s actually the huge carbon footprint behind the lively Super Bowl ads.

The ads have a life on air and in online blitzes before and after Sunday’s matchup, and should perhaps alarm the growing number of sustainably-minded consumers and investors who may be clamoring about the pollution of manufacturing plants but aren’t applying the same scrutiny into the digital world.

Climate experts say the shift will require adjustments in everything from casting to production to buying digital ads. Also, there’s little consistent tracking of how environmentally harmful advertising is, say the companies trying to help the advertising world and TV, streaming and film productions to green their operations.

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So how “dirty” are those expensive Super Bowl ads that cost millions for a 30-second chance to capture captivated viewers?

Planned, created and displayed the 10 most popular online ads from last year’s Super Bowl, led by


The Mind Reader campaign caused 422 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions



That’s according to estimates by UK-based Good-Loop, one of the companies trying to change the advertising environment.

Can’t you fully take care of the character? That equates to approximately 2,800 flights from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the two cities represented in Super Bowl LVII 2023.

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Why is the advertising industry being targeted?

For starters, Super Bowl ads are sometimes star jet-set celebrities whose air travel habits are routine fodder for scolding climate watchers.

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Over the past few years, many brands have started recruiting not just one, but multiple celebrities for a single spot or campaign. But from an emissions perspective, that can quickly add up — especially when celebrities commute to the shoot in private jets, which emit about two tons of CO2 an hour, according to a report by Transport and Environment.

For example, if a celebrity traveling for business or pleasure needs to fly from Los Angeles to Norway, that private jet route could generate up to 24 tons of CO2 emissions while carrying very few people. That equates to about 60,000 miles driven by an average petrol engine


auto, using a calculator provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Like any other advertising, the carbon footprint of a Super Bowl ad is directly impacted by the creative choices that go into it,” said Gabi Kay, co-founder of Green the Bid, another organization that tries to make advertising sustainable , opposite Adweek.

Given the high cost of running the ads, climate awareness budgets may not be a priority. In 2023, advertisers will pay an average of $7 million to air a 30-second commercial during Super Bowl LVII broadcast. Businesses leverage that amount with much longer campaigns, reaching viewers across YouTube, broader social media, and other digital traffic.

Because ads are digital and seem to flow in and out of our lives, they don’t have the same profound impact on public consciousness as, say, deforestation or plastic in the ocean. Aside from consumer resistance, what is there to get the advertising industry to act? Brands themselves only report their carbon footprint on a voluntary basis, and only a few break down this footprint to highlight their advertising impact.

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Good-Loop is one of a few companies trying to track and reduce the online advertising industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, even beyond major televised sporting events. But it’s a difficult market to track. Unlike expensive Super Bowl ads that are secured months in advance, digital billboards are typically sold in automated, lightning-fast auctions that can involve dozens of different internet companies for each transaction. And once the bidding is over, the actual energy consumption begins, with traffic traversing a untold number of power-hungry computer servers for each ad.

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Data centers are responsible for about 2% of all global CO2 emissions. In the US alone, data centers are attributed 0.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. That’s about the same as in the US commercial airline industry. Data centers are among the leading companies taking action to offset their emissions by buying trees, participating in the carbon credit market where lighter polluters can trade credits for heavier polluters, and taking action to reduce water consumption.

Can advertising really get greener?

Because understanding the big picture of emissions is a good start for changes in the advertising industry, Good-Loop has developed software that works like an online cookie. Instead of monitoring browsing history, it measures how many intermediaries are behind each digital ad, and then calculates the energy use at each step along the way.

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In addition to more sustainable ad creation, groups like Good-Loop are working to provide more transparency into Scope 3 emissions, which represent the harder-to-track carbon impacts along a supply chain. In the case of advertisers and the companies whose products they promote, Scope 3 includes the emissions from the use of those products, not just the cost of making, advertising and distributing them.

To limit emissions related to digital advertising related to the Super Bowl and across all aspects of the entertainment business — especially when the world of celebrity supporters cares as much about the environment as they might claim — stars and production teams could work more closely together partner with the publisher, use smaller video sizes where possible, and avoid ad pages, say the companies that track these operations.

Good-Loop COO Ryan Cochrane is optimistic that the advertising industry wants this data and change.

“I expect that in 2023 we will see a real push from the industry to standardize the way marketers measure the amount of carbon emissions their digital advertising generates,” he said in a preview of the company.

“As with any complex problem, there are a million ways to interpret the data, including the variables you use to calculate the outcome,” he said. “However, there is a real risk that if advertisers are asked to meet their net zero [emissions] Commitments simply use the lowest score available – not necessarily the right one. So expect ‘Adland’ to come together to determine what should and shouldn’t be included in the calculations.”

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