Are Super Bowl Ads a Waste of Money and Talent?

Jeri Smith
Marketing News Weekly
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Key Takeaways

What? Advertisers expected to spend quarter of a billion dollars on Super Bowl ads.

So what? Super Bowl ads may not be worth the talent and money it takes to make them.

Now what? While the Super Bowl is a coveted space for advertisers, the temptation to go new and big may have little in-market impact. In fact, in many cases brands may reduce their association with the products. Marketers should instead take cues from brands who stick to the tried and true themes and help keep the brand front and center.

If the past four years are any indication, Super Bowl advertisers will waste upward of a quarter of a billion dollars in advertising (yes, that’s a ‘b’) that has zero chance of producing any impact on their brand. That’s a lot of money—and a lot of talent—wasted in developing ever-more creative and entertaining commercials, supported by ever-more inventive pre-game public relations programs.

Of course, it is the Super Bowl and everyone wants to produce a clever spot, but as is true with any ad, it’s not going to work if the people who see it don’t know what brand it’s for. While only about half of those who engage with and remember a typical TV commercial associate it with the correct brand, the batting average for Super Bowl commercials is even worse, at about one in three correct associations.

Despite the huge investment that’s made in development and production, Super Bowl ads tend to fare worse than typical TV commercials for several reasons. First and foremost, everyone wants to win the major popularity contest of the year: the USA Today Ad Meter. Advertisers get sucked into the fervor of the event and focus more on making their commercials highly entertaining for the Super Bowl, compared with the rest of the year when they concentrate more on being persuasive.

Commercials that are designed to be highly entertaining often tell stories that are very involved—but that don’t revolve around the brand. Many Super Bowl commercials do a great job of entertaining, whether through humor or heart-strings tugging without viewers even needing to know what brand is sponsoring the commercial. This is a trap that year after year, our research shows, advertisers from Honda to Toyota, Hyundai to VW and Wix to Squarespace have fallen victim to. It seems to be a particular struggle for the auto brands, as there are so many of them whose commercials appear every year in the game.

In the 2015 Super Bowl, there were 11 car commercials for nine different brands. Representing nearly 25% of the total game commercial time, they all start to run together – that is, unless the brand manages to do something really unexpected and pattern breaking, as just one seems to pull off every year. Last year, it was the Fiat Little Blue Pill spot, which told the story of the little blue pill that an amorous old Italian man intends to take, that instead falls from his bedroom window into the gas tank of a tiny red Fiat. The car, then full of vim and vigor, speeds away, past women who are unexplainably attracted to the suddenly sexy little car. Unlike many car commercials, this spot works for Fiat, but wouldn’t make sense for anything other than a small, underpowered Italian car.

Celebrities can also be a major factor in brand distraction, becoming what are often referred to as a ‘video vampire’: stealing the show to the point that viewers have no recall of the brand. This is most problematic when the celebrity is one who has nothing to do with the brand, rather is just a high profile figure that has been brought in for this one occasion. Pierce Brosnan for the Kia Sorento, Amy Purding for Toyota, Mindy Kaling for Nationwide and Lindsay Lohan for Esurance. Can anyone explain the natural fit, or what these personalities brought to the brands for which they appeared?

In their efforts to surprise viewers, many advertisers eschew the use of their brand’s tried and true campaign concepts and brand-linked assets: the elements of an ad that cue the brand. It stands to reason that a commercial that doesn’t contain any familiar brand-linked elements won’t be as closely tied to the brand as one that does. Brands that do make use of their core brand equities with their Super Bowl ads, or that reprise Super Bowl concepts from year-to-year, have a leg up on branding compared to those that don’t. Budweiser with its Clydesdales and Doritos with their 11-year run of the Crash the Super Bowl contest are the real winners. These advertisers routinely accomplish correct brand associations with upwards of 80% of those who see their ads, more than double the Super Bowl average. For these brands, this means they’ve more than doubled the potential in-market impact of their ads without spending a dime more than the advertisers who instead executed a totally new and different approach.

We’ve all heard the quote made early in the last century by retailer phenomenon John Wanamaker who famously remarked, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half!” Well, John, it’s actually about two thirds, and I know exactly which two-thirds. And when it comes to Super Bowl ads, that’s a lot of money to lose.

Author Bio:

Jeri Smith
Jeri Smith is President/CEO of Communicus, an advertising research firm specializing in integrated campaign measurement solutions that isolate the impact of advertising and other marketplace factors on brands.
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Ronald Wong
February 5, 2016

Good articles and analysis! May I ask about the meaning of CES and how it calculates in the report of Communicus?

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