Can Super Bowl Ads Be Effective

January 29, 2014 by Mike Goff

The headline fairly screamed off of the page – “80% of Super Bowl ads flop.”  The headline, from the January 6 issue of Advertising Age, cited a study by Communicus that suggested that eight of 10 ads shown during the biggest television event of every year “don’t sell stuff.”

The results – true, flawed, or not – shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise as spending $4 million on a 30-second spot is no guarantee of sudden brand success.  And, if ever there is a risky place to place’s one commercial, the Super Bowl is absolutely it.  No other ad venue is as closely scrutinized with a high premium placed on the commercial’s ability to entertain viewers. What other TV event has viewers arguably paying more attention to the commercials than to the actual game?

Communicus surveyed 1,000 consumers before they were exposed to ads in the 2012 and 2013 Super Bowl games.  The research firm asked respondents what they’d bought recently and what they intend to buy in the categories spanning the Super Bowl advertiser base.  They then followed up with that same group over the ensuing weeks and asked similar questions to determine viewer recall for various Super Bowl advertiser brands.  For autos and categories with longer purchase cycles, Communicus used measures such as changes in intention to investigate a brand.

The results signal what has happened to Super Bowl advertising over the past 10 plus years—it’s become a forum where entertainment value wins the day in terms of consumer awareness and enjoyment.  In fact, that very phenomenon is being spoofed this week in a pre-Super Bowl teaser ad from Volkswagen—a brand who “won” the 2011 big game ad festival with its Darth Vader-costumed child and the remote control start feature of VW’s Passat.  The teaser ad breaks out every known television commercial hook—from the sexy Carmen Electra to puppies to sophomoric jokes involving hits to the groin.

The brands who are “winning” this year’s Super Bowl ad battle are the ones who are already in market with teaser spots, like VW, or campaigns intended to culminate with a spot or promotion linked to the Super Bowl.  Pepsi, as an example, is not only sponsor of the halftime show but is using lead-up commercials to tout how the soft drink brand helped create halftime.  The cola company will then take a different strategy into its game advertising—spots will focus on the brands within the Pepsi family versus focusing on only one beverage brand.  GoDaddy has eschewed its provocative past creative, heavy on the sexiness quotient, in order to run a spot that is much more grown-up and representative of the corporate makeover of that brand. Danica Patrick will be a central character in the spot but in a suit that is, ahem, different from that to which we’ve been accustomed.

Interestingly, many brands are using nostalgia in their 2014 Super Bowl campaigns.  Dannon’s Oikos yogurt will reunite Bob Saget, John Stamos and Dave Coulier of Full House fame, Pepsi’s lead-in spot has actors in leather helmets and period garb, the Muppets will star in Toyota’s commercial, and Laurence Fishburne provides a 1990s The Matrix vibe to Kia’s TV spot.

Can brands walk that fine line in being entertaining while also providing advertising that is recognized and whose message breaks through in the Super Bowl programming environment?  The answer, of course, is yes but it’s a deft balance to be struck.  That is one reason so many brands are actually advertising, prior to the game, that they will have an ad in the game—it’s hedging their bet to try to maximize the exposure of the 100 million viewers tuning in to FOX’s broadcast.

In 2006, Sprint ran this spot (which now seems horribly outdated given all that our smartphones can now do) that provided a simple summary of the phone’s features while also using the humor we’ve all come to enjoy in the Super Bowl, thus providing the entertainment giggle.  This spot performed well in post-Super Bowl research as it was remembered and respondents were able to recite back the key message from the ad.  It ran well into the remainder of that year, providing utility far beyond that one major broadcast.

So, my answer to Ad Age is it can be done—Super Bowl ads can surely “sell stuff.”  In today’s world, though, it’s the brands that use the Super Bowl as the culmination of a campaign who are emerging as the big winners.  Last year it was Audi (“Prom” spot)—this year it’s likely to be Doritos, VW or perhaps Jaguar with its teaser and in-game advertising featuring Ben Kingsley.

We’re interested in what you think.  Follow us on Twitter on Super Bowl night and respond with your favorite commercials from this year’s Super Bowl.

Note: Mike Goff managed three different Super Bowl ad placements while at Sprint.