When thinking about the  Super Bowl, topics like online lending or tech-enabled tax solutions don't exactly come to mind. That's about to change this weekend, though, thanks to the five financial service companies that have secured a coveted 30 or 45-second  ad slot during the big game.

TurboTax, SoFi, PayPal, SunTrust Banks, and Quicken Loans each spent $5 million (or more) to lock in a commercial. In addition to the airtime on February 7, the companies have been rolling out digital and social media campaigns (i.e., teaser trailers, hashtags, and supplementary "explainer" videos, and testimonials from consumers).

So why are so many financial service companies jumping on the Super Bowl ad bandwagon? It's simple: Almost every American will be tuning in to watch the television event--and what better time than now to seize on America's growing financial woes?

Here's how each of these companies is making the most of a $5 million ad slot:

Simplifying a complex financial message.

Of the five companies, just one--TurboTax--is a Super Bowl ad veteran.

"The Super Bowl is incredibly timely for our business," says Julie Miller, VP of communications at the tax software solution. 

"It's the biggest possible stage we can get in early February, when tens of millions of tax payers are filing their taxes. The timing really couldn't be better," she said.

TurboTax hasn't unveiled its official ad yet--aside from a teaser leading up to the game day. In the ad, a wise, elderly man explains the philosophy of "zero" to a stressed out taxpayer. The goal is to let viewers know the service will tabulate and file your taxes at no additional cost.

In a second teaser, TurboTax spoofs the campaign season itself. In "Someone Else," actor James Lipton arrives at the offices of an ad studio--only to discover that the executives are axing him from the TurboTax commercial they had originally promised him.

"We've been selective about how we use those moments," Miller ads. "We pick one element of the overall story, and bring each of those to life in one 30-second spot."

She concedes that distilling TurboTax's business model and price structure into a 30-second slot is tricky, which is why the company chose to focus on specific aspects of the software. And come game time, viewers shouldn't expect to see actors file their taxes on screen, because as Miller puts it, "that doesn't make for good TV."

Making the message as relatable and simple as possible.

American viewers may not be primed for financial messaging--especially between jingles for Doritos or the more heart-rending ads that Budweiser has a reputation for. While TurboTax is focusing on the smaller details, other ad players are using their screen time to convey a bigger, more accessible picture.

PayPal, for instance, will use its 45-second slot to portray the brand's "global vision for the future of money," Greg Fisher, the company's VP of branding, said in a statement. The commercial was produced by Crispin Porter + Bogusky. 

Quicken Loans, the online lender based in Detroit,  also went big with its commercial slot. The company brings in revenue by originating loans for customers through its easy-to-use website, and works with more traditional partners such as Sallie Mae and Bank of America. 

Keeping the message positive and stress-free.

"You can't communicate everything. It [the ad] doesn't go into the step-by-step process," explains Jay Farner, Quicken's president and CMO. Instead, the company's teaser ad, called "What We Were Thinking," looks at the macro-economic impact of securing a mortgage: How a furniture maker in middle-America might be affected, say, if a consumer chose to buy a house via a loan through Rocket Mortgage, its new app-enabled mortgage software that hit the market last November.

Farner notes that Quicken was careful to steer clear of the "fear" tactic, preferring to focus on the positive implications of what the software might do for families and communities.

"We didn't want to use fear or concern," he explains. "But it's also the largest financial transaction for most Americans, so you don't want to step into a place where we're making it too humorous or too light-hearted."

Playing on consumer fear would be relatively easy to do.

A 2015 study from the American Psychological Association revealed that money is a leading cause of stress among Americans. Even those who've amassed significant wealth are often compelled to make more, driven by the "ever-present fear of losing it all," according to a UBS study of investors with a net worth of at least $1 million from the same year.

SunTrust Banks, based in Atlanta, will be using its 30-second commercial to depict "panic" on screen. In the ad, the company promises to help the country "catch its breath," financially speaking.

"It's like you're drowning, and meanwhile the moments that matter just slip away," a voiceover whispers. The commercial will run just before the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, which is also liable to be a stressful time for sports fans.

Reaching out to your core consumer group.

Perhaps the most notable new face to the Super Bowl ad game is SoFi (Social Finance Inc.). The lending firm offers student loan refinancing, along with personal loans, parent loans, and mortgages.

To date, the San Francisco-based company has raised more than $1.3 billion in venture capital from major investors such as SoftBank and Third Point Ventures. SoFi has been profitable for two years, and has originated $7 billion worth of loans in its four-year history. 

Joanne Bradford, SoFi's chief operating officer in charge of the Super Bowl ad campaign, joined the team as recently as August. Having served stints at major companies such as Microsoft, Pinterest, and Google, Bradford was not expecting to hit the ground running with more traditional network advertising for the startup.

"In the end, with the opportunity that we have, the most effective single buy for us to do is really the Super Bowl, because of the reach of the population," Bradford says.

To produce the ad, SoFi spent about 20 percent of its brand budget, and expects its business to increase by roughly 15 percent this year. So far, the teaser ad leading up to the big game has generated more than 10 million views and significantly increased organic searches of the website.

The campaign itself, called "Bankless World," pits SoFi against traditional financial institutions, insofar as it can offer cheaper rates on loans, evaluating clients on a number of data-driven risk factors beyond their FICO scores. The corresponding tagline, which has picked up traction on social media, is: "Don't Bank. SoFi."

It's worth noting that even as SoFi appeals to a much broader audience, only 60 percent of prospective customers are approved for loans or loan refinancing through the company. Generally speaking, a SoFi customer has a steady income of about $60,000 annually. Presently, the company has 120,000 member clients.

"There are millions more people in our target group, and they'll be watching the Super Bowl. We think that financial responsibility and hard work are really important to people, and they want greater products and benefits for doing that," Bradford said.

She recognizes that SoFi may not be the right solution for any consumer, which is why the game day ad ends with the voiceover: "Find out if you're great," referring to a client's credit-worthiness.

The original version of the ad, which features actual SoFi members as opposed to actors, received some criticism in an early screening, when members found the tone of the ad to be "biting," says Bradford. The company has since tweaked it to eliminate the parenthetical: "You're probably not [great]."

SoFi, for its part, is not trying to be everybody's financial solution--yet.

"We did not want the ad to be: 'Everybody come here and get a low rate loan tomorrow,'" Bradford admits. "The goal is for us to have brand recognition, and the opportunity to tell the story."

Published on: Feb 3, 2016