The Armchair Marketer’s Guide to the Super Bowl Ads

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

Sunday night, the Patriots and Falcons will meet in the Super Bowl to determine the champion of the NFL.

But there will be other winners and losers. Dozens of advertisers will fork out about $5mm for a thirty-second spot – roughly $170k per second – in hopes of winning the battle of the Super Bowl ads.

Most will fail.

Here’s the risk to the rest of us: we may learn the wrong lessons from this overblown spectacle. Below are three tips for underdogs, upstarts, and those who just believe that effectiveness matters.

Ignore the Laughs

At some point during your Super Bowl party, you are likely to hear something like this:

“Hahahahahahahaha! What a great ad! So funny!”

This was a common response after Radio Shack’s 2014 Super Bowl ad. Many of us can recall this ad without prompting. It was the one where all the ‘80s icons burst into a Radio Shack store and trashed it.

It was so popular that it earned the #5 spot in USA Today’s AdMeter rankings.

What people remember less is what happened next. Four weeks after that Super Bowl, Radio Shack closed almost 20% of its locations (1100 stores in all). And things got worse for Radio Shack after that.

There is no statistical relationship between laughs and effectiveness. If you’re an underdog brand looking to make a dent in the universe, and you retain only one thing from this article, remember this:

The purpose of advertising is not to entertain. It is to motivate.

Focus on What Matters

If you’re going to be a stick in the mud at Sunday’s party, you may as well go all the way. As you watch the Super Bowl ads, check how well each advertiser does on the following elements:

  1. Target Consumer – Exactly who are they speaking to? The Super Bowl is the most mass-market of all advertising vehicles, but you can still find nuance. For instance, if it’s a car ad, are they speaking to first-time buyers? Families? Upscale households? Those who value safety? Those who value performance? And so on.
  2. Key Thought – What is the one thing the ad wants to convey to the target consumer? Is a benefit or point of difference clearly communicated? What do they want the viewer to do, think or feel? To what degree do they support that key thought?
  3. Ad/Campaign Idea – Sometimes Super Bowl ads are created for the occasion; often, they’re part of a larger, ongoing campaign. Either way, there are many ways the Key Thought could have been communicated. Did the advertiser choose wisely? Consider the words, visuals and story that the advertiser employed. What worked and didn’t work?

Evaluating ads in this fashion is a simple, inexpensive way to sharpen your marketing instincts. I suggest you do it not just during the Super Bowl, but year-round.

So why didn’t the Radio Shack ad work? Two reasons:

  • It lacked a Key Thought. Radio Shack was saying, “Yeah, we get it, we’re out of date.” What it didn’t make clear is why you should visit a Radio Shack store. There was zero benefit for you, the consumer.
  • Radio Shack had a business issue, not an advertising issue. Radio Shack tends to operate small stores with limited selections. What’s Radio Shack’s right to win vs. a big-box store, or an electronics superstore, or the Internet? Advertising can’t fix a core business issue.

Enter the Bonus Round

Instead of only looking at the Super Bowl ads themselves, earn extra credit by selecting a few advertisers and digging deeper. Consider:

The Past & Present. What’s the strategic context that influences the advertiser’s choices?

For instance, Budweiser continues to bleed market share while microbrews gain. It’s important to know this when evaluating Bud’s current advertising.

Is the advertiser launching a new product or innovation? Is its category increasingly competitive? Does the business have a new CEO, CMO or investment group? These things matter.

The Future. Take any and all predictions of how the Super Bowl ads fared, including mine, with a grain of salt.

It may be weeks before we know how a given ad truly fared. So take the long view. Check in down the road for signs of impact on key business metrics. (Including whether the advertiser continues the campaign or changes direction.)

I’ll be back Sunday night with my take on this year’s crop of ads. Until then…

What’s your take on the Super Bowl ads and the media frenzy that accompanies it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

UPDATE: You can find my take on the 2017 Super Bowl ads right here.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2017 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.