Why Super Bowl simsub is a big loss for Canadians

For many Canadians, this year’s Super Bowl isn’t going to be nearly as good as last year’s event. I’m not talking about those who watch “The Big Game” for the football. I’m talking about those who watch it for the ads.

Bell Media, supported by the NFL, scored a big victory late last year when the Supreme Court ruled the CRTC had overstepped its authority in 2016 by banning simultaneous substitution (or “simsub”). 

Practically speaking, simsub is what allows Bell Media to strip the Super Bowl broadcast of its U.S. advertising and replace it with Canadian ads. The CRTC decision to ban the practice for the Super Bowl was based on a simple truth, albeit one that turned out not to be legally defensible: Watching U.S. ads during the Super Bowl is a part of the total Super Bowl experience, and Canadians want the same ad-tastic experience as Americans.

For three glorious years while Bell fought the CRTC’s decision, Canadians were given the option of watching the Super Bowl on Bell Media’s stations with Canadian ads, or watching the game on a U.S. station with U.S. ads. What do you think they chose to do?

Here’s a hint: according to Broadcast Dialogue, “Bell Media blamed the ruling for a 39% decline in audience for the game in 2017 and a drop of $11 million in ad revenue. The 2019 broadcast on CTV, CTV2 and TSN attracted an average audience of 4.33 million viewers in Canada, down from 4.45 million viewers [in 2018] and 4.47 million viewers in 2017—a total drop in viewership of 41% from the 7.32 million Canadians who watched in 2016—the last Super Bowl broadcast prior to the simsub ruling taking effect.”

People didn’t choose to stop watching the Super Bowl. They chose to stop watching the Super Bowl with simsub. They wanted to see those spectacular U.S. ads, and they voted with their eyeballs.

I can’t help but shake my head at the argument most often used by those who support simsub: “You can go to YouTube right now and watch every single ad that’s going to run this Sunday!” While that argument is absolutely correct, I can also open Spotify and stream Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” right now, but that’s not the same as attending a Lady Gaga concert.

One of my favourite Super Bowl campaigns in recent memory came two years ago. The brilliant “It’s a Tide Ad” was remarkable because it simultaneously mocked all other Super Bowl ads while turning them into Tide spots. After watching the ad in context of the game, you couldn’t help but ask yourself “Is this a Tide ad?” when any other spot was aired. It was absolutely brilliant, but its brilliance is dulled significantly when you watch the commercials today on YouTube versus live during the 2018 game.

If you put the consumer first, there’s really only one good reason to advocate for simsub: Not all ads running in the U.S. are going to be relevant for Canadians. Geiko has historically run very amusing ads during the Super Bowl, but you can’t buy Geiko insurance in Canada.

And while both Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg have spent millions to run ads on Sunday, most Canadians can’t vote in the upcoming U.S. election. So if you remove the irrelevant U.S. ads and replace them with advertising more relevant to Canadians, that would theoretically be a good thing.

But too often, Canadian companies fail ad-loving consumers by re-running old spots instead of creating something new—not because their agencies don’t have the talent to create bold work, but because their budgets don’t allow for it.

In fairness, producing any new spot and then buying premium-priced Super Bowl media does require fair-sized budgets, and that’s before you even think about creating a U.S.-like ad featuring a high-profile celebrity.

But if Canadian companies regarded the Big Game as the “total game experience” manner that U.S. companies paying $5.6 million for a 30-second spot clearly do, they’d never insult us by running something we’ve already watched. And companies that rationalize doing so with, “Hey, we’ll still get the eyeballs” forget how easy it is for viewers to divert their attention as soon as an uninteresting or overly familiar ad begins to run.

To be sure, not all Canadian ads are bad. I didn’t see it air myself because I’m a cord-cutter who finds innovative ways to watch the U.S. broadcast every year, but this Skip the Dishes ad starring Jon Hamm ran during last year’s Super Bowl, and it’s fantastic.

The ad had already been online before the game, but it is exactly the type of big, bold, emotional campaign that deserves to air during a Super Bowl. It’s just that Canadians need to see more of them if we’re to avoid the “fear of missing out” by not choosing the U.S. broadcast.

I’d really love to be proven wrong. I’d like nothing better than for me to speak with my friends on Monday and have them ask, “Did you see that phenomenal [insert Canadian company here] ad during the Super Bowl?” and immediately feel bad about streaming a U.S. feed. I’d love to write a column before next year’s Super Bowl about how wrong I was with this article—how the reintroduction of simsub wasn’t a bad thing, and how, in fact, it provided an incentive for Canadian companies to produce and air more bold advertising than ever before.

Hey Canadian business leaders: Please, prove me wrong.


David Pullara is a senior marketer and consultant who’s probably never going to work for either Bell or the NFL after writing this piece, but he’s fine with that. (He already has Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, and Google on his resume.) You can sign up for his free weekly newsletter at www.dpthoughts.ca.

David Pullara