This Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons will attempt to upset Tom Brady and his Patriots in Super Bowl LI. For many viewers, though, that tilt will be a secondary concern. Instead, they’ll be tuning in for the halftime show, an event-within-an-event that has become even more eagerly anticipated than the football game that bookends it — 111.9 people watched last year’s Super Bowl 50, compared to the 115.5 who watched Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé perform midway through. What was once a kitschy interstitial involving college marching bands and Elvis impersonators has evolved into a glossy, star-studded, mega-performance. In the pantheon of American spectacle, the Super Bowl halftime show is now peerless in its reach.
As the caliber of the halftime performer has increased, the corresponding media coverage has grown. The event itself is preceded by a week of speculation over which songs will be performed, what sorts of elaborate staging will be on display, which guests will accompany the headline, and, more recently, what the headliner will be wearing. For her 2012 halftime performance, Madonna wore custom Givenchy, and performers in subsequent years have largely followed suit with designer looks of their own.
This year’s halftime performer, Lady Gaga is as deeply embedded in the world of fashion as any previous headliner, a front-row fixture at fashion shows and a sartorial provocateur throughout her career — lest we forget the meat dress. Last year, she sang the national anthem clad in a red sequined suit designed by Alessandro Michele for Gucci, and on Sunday, styled by her friend and longtime stylist, designer Brandon Maxwell, she is likely to pull out all the stops.
Could the Super Bowl now also be considered a fashion event, too? Britt Aboutaleb, Editor-in-Chief of Racked, a digital magazine covering the cultural dimensions of fashion and retail, is skeptical: “A million things are competing for your attention during the Super Bowl, from the commercials, to the performances to the game itself.” So while the performers’ outfits are sure to generate column inches for fashion publications — even The New York Times’ fashion editor has chipped in observations — the impact on the general audience might remain limited. “I’m pretty sure the most talked about outfit was a malfunctioning one,” Aboutaleb notes, referencing Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 halftime show.
Of course, Givenchy and its outgoing creative director Ricardo Tisci were household names before they dressed Madonna for her performance, much the same as when Moschino and Jeremy Scott dressed Katy Perry in 2015, or when Saint Laurent dressed Bruno Mars in 2014. For brands of this stature, dressing a Super Bowl performer is more of an affirmation than an emergence — a challenge to create several functional and striking looks and an opportunity to deepen ties with valuable celebrity clients.
But what about lesser-known labels? In 2013, American designer Rubin Singer dressed Beyoncé and her armada of back-up dancers. A relative unknown before that performance, it afforded Singer a groundswell of press that buoyed his business, but it did not exactly turn him into a household name. “It’s great morale for the brand, and gives the fashion industry a way in to the conversation, but I don’t think it’s affecting anyone’s bottom line,” Aboutaleb suggests.
Analyst Michael Miraflor of media agency Blue449 offers a contrasting opinion: “Halftime is as much a visual spectacle as audio. When Bruno Mars appeared in 2014, social mentions of Saint Laurent went off the charts. I worked on H&M Super Bowl campaigns in 2012 and 2014. Part of my job was monitoring and amplifying the spots H&M had in those years, so it was really eye opening to realize how big of a general pop culture moment the commercials and half time shows really are. In 2012, the David Beckham commercial was one of the top moments of the entire broadcast — game included.”
So, even if there isn’t a direct impact on sales, it is likely that dressing a halftime performer has a positive downstream effect, due to the uniquely overwhelming nature of the event. Miraflor continues: “The Super Bowl is a truly unique vehicle that dominates nearly all media on the day it airs — linear, streaming, social conversations, etc. There really isn’t much meaningful counter-programming the day of the big game.”
With all those viewers, the potential for the Super Bowl to be a directly impactful commercial platform for fashion brands is certainly there. After their 2015 performance, Katy Perry and Missy Elliott saw enormous bumps in album and song sales thanks to the immediacy of the digital music economy. A savvy fashion label could capture this energy and convert it into sales of their own.
“We know Lady Gaga makes bold statements with her looks. Given the current political climate I’m sure she has a lot to say, and a massive audience will be listening,” says Aboutaleb. If that audience is given the opportunity — say, with a provocative slogan t-shirt worn by Gaga to close out her performance available for purchase online immediately — they might be shopping, too.