When the living history site released the news that it had made a Super Bowl ad—which cost $5 million for 30 seconds in the national market—the backlash was immediate. Shouldn’t a nonprofit have a better use for $5 million?
Colonial Williamsburg has an annual budget, according to Charity Navigator, of more than $130 million and it spends 79 percent of that budget on program expenses.
Colonial Williamsburg was quick to point out to those on Twitter who complained about the expense that the ad cost nowhere near $5 million and its narrator, Tom Brokaw, had worked for free.
It restated these facts on the Williamsburg-run “Making History” website when it posted an extended cut of the ad:
A shortened, 30-second version of this ad will air during Super Bowl 50 (in the break before halftime) in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. By limiting air time to just those markets, it significantly reduced the cost but still allowed us to reach the cities where statistically, the majority of our visitors live.
But even in only three markets, a Super Bowl ad is still a considerable expense. In 2013, Deadline asked a media buyer to break down the costs for 2014 Super Bowl ads in individual markets: New York was $1 million (“even though they ask $1 million, they’ll probably get $850,000 per 30”), Los Angeles was $550,000, and Chicago was $400,000.
Still, it’s possible to make and sell a Super Bowl ad for a nominal fee: Last year, a “leaked” ad from The Verge raised speculations that Vox.com had purchased a Super Bowl ad, which cost $4 million that year. The ad, it turns out, did run during the Super Bowl, but only in one market—Helena, Montana. The spot cost $700.
Update: Joe Straw, a spokesperson for Colonial Williamsburg, responded to our request for comment: “Our 2016 advertising budget is actually lower as a percentage of overall budget than in prior years. We chose to make a statement about the role of history—and Colonial Williamsburg—in the everyday life enjoyed by Americans today by concentrating some of our resources on the Super Bowl audience in our strongest markets. The gamble, if there is one, is that we are not selling hotel rooms or attractions. We are promoting the notion that our exceptional nation was not inevitable.”