Six Important Questions for This Year’s Super Bowl Advertisers

(Reading Time: 7 minutes)

Quick show of hands: Do you have a marketing budget of five million dollars?

And if you did, how would you feel about spending it in 30 seconds?  Because that’s exactly what last night’s Super Bowl advertisers did.  Repeatedly.

That’s nearly $167,000 per second – more than most Americans earn in an entire year.

So I trust you’ll forgive me if I approach the Super Bowl ads, and the surrounding fanfare, with a healthy degree of scrutiny.  I’m a brand guy – always have been – but I also know this:  If it doesn’t sell, it’s bad branding.

And, based on history, most of last night’s ads did not sell.

My whole career, I’ve worked on and with challenger brands – those that seek to make a dent in the universe, but with fewer resources.  The Super Bowl, on the other hand, is about massive resources.  It’s one of the largest stages in the known universe for marketing and branding.

But challenger brands can learn much from this spectacle.  The following are some questions we should ask this year’s Super Bowl advertisers:

1. Who are you targeting?

The selling point of the Super Bowl is its massive reach.  With over 100 million American viewers, plus countless opportunities for online views, there’s nothing that compares to it in this market.

So it attracts either household names with broad audiences, or brands that want to be household names and are willing to trade efficiency for speed.

Of course, most challenger brands shouldn’t be concerned with broad reach.  I preach focus.  If you have limited resources, you need a laser, not a shotgun.

But there were some examples of targeting, both good and bad, among this year’s Super Bowl advertisers.

Super Bowl Advertisers Kia Matthew Fenton
Clear targeting, awful message.

By employing Steven Tyler to show off its new Stinger, Kia made a clear choice to target Boomers.  (We’ll talk later about whether they got the message right.)

Michelob Ultra tried to expand its audience.  Recent Mich Ultra ads have portrayed a group you might call “the very fit and active.”  But last night’s spots showed us a broader range of fitness levels and activities.  Mich Ultra’s creative has moved the sales needle for a few years – we’ll see if this change continues its winning streak.

I always find it a bit odd to see luxury goods in the Super Bowl, like the Lexus LS 500.  With a starting price tag of $75,000, it’s out of the price range of most viewers.  I’d opt for a campaign with sharper targeting and more frequency.

2. What are you trying to convey?

For a percentage of all the advertising in the world, you may be left with the reasonable question: “What the hell was that about?”  The Super Bowl advertisers were not exempt.

M&Ms Super Bowl Advertisers
Love Danny DeVito. Didn’t love this ad.

Take M&Ms.  With their animated characters, they have an asset that most brands would love to have.  But in humanizing one of them as Danny DeVito, what does it add to the character story?  And what is the audience supposed to think or feel?

I’m of the opinion that Bill Hader makes everything he touches better, but he can’t save a weak concept.  I don’t know that I’d spend $5mm to tell people you can stack Pringles flavors.  It’s not really a “wow.”

It’s particularly instructive to compare the messaging of competitors.  Take Squarespace and Wix.  Squarespace presented Keanu Reeves voicing inspirational quotes while doing motorcycle tricks – in other words, “a Super Bowl ad.”  Wix gave a us a product demo signaling its ease of use, and the clear message “Create your stunning website today.”  Which do you think will be more effective?  This writer picks Wix.

And why do soda purveyors think they’re changing the world?  It’s been less than a year since Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner fiasco.  Though there was nothing that tone-deaf here, we did get a heavy-handed product message from Coke, under the thin veil of diversity and uniqueness.  Meanwhile, Pepsi was “celebrating every generation,” which is as meaningless and untargeted as it gets.  By my eye, both major soda brands fumbled.

On the other hand, somebody should tell Diet Coke that “silly dancing” is a shallow lake that was fished dry a while ago.

And, like any Super Bowl, there was no shortage of virtue signaling, from the likes of WeatherTech, Hyundai and T-Mobile.  Verizon’s message, at least, was tied to reliability.  The water giveaway program of Anheuser-Busch is noble, but will advertising it stop Budweiser’s market-share free-fall?

My big messaging winner?  Wendy’s, with lines like “We only use fresh, never frozen, beef on every hamburger every day” and “Skip the hamburgers at the Frozen Arches.”  This is a great lesson in challenger branding from the #2 burger chain – if you have a meaningful difference, speak to it clearly.

3. Did you execute in the best way?

Having the right message is one aspect of a solid ad.  But the creative idea is where the art lies.

I like what Febreze did with “#bleepdontstink.”  It tied to a need in a humorous and memorable way, and there’s viral potential there.

Points also to Amazon’s Alexa.  Yes, there was star-power courtesy of Gordon Ramsay, Rebel Wilson, Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  But it served the product benefit.  This is a much better approach than just sticking Christopher Walken in your ad, which seems to happen every other Super Bowl.

The best pure creative execution was Toyota’s game-opening spot, featuring 8x Paralympic gold medalist Lauren Woolstencroft.  The music, storytelling and “odds countdown” meshed perfectly.  It was an excellent extension of Toyota’s “Start Your Impossible” campaign for its mobility solutions.

Super Bowl Advertisers Doritos Matthew Fenton
Peter Dinklage brings the heat for Doritos Blaze.

Doritos Blaze and Mtn Dew Ice teamed up for the SuperBowliest of the Super Bowl ads, enlisting Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman in a lip-synced rap battle.  Though the gag threatened to overshadow the new-product news, I’d say it landed, but barely.

The second-most problematic execution was that of the Kia Stinger, with its tagline of “Feel Something Again.”  This suggests that Boomers aren’t feeling anything, and if they want to, they should Benjamin Button themselves.  As a Gen-Xer who’s a half-decade outside the Boomer age range, I can say this: Kia, I’m feeling life just fine without your new sports sedan, thanks.

The most problematic execution?  The use of MLK’s words to sell Dodge Rams, for reasons too numerous to list here.

4. Did you make the most of the opportunity?

The first three questions focused on aspects of the ads.  But there are lessons that challenger brands can learn by looking at the activity surrounding the big event.

In its first-ever Super Bowl ad, Kraft pulled together social-media images that were posted, on game day, with the hashtags #FamilyGreatly and #KraftEntry.  That’s smart consumer engagement.

Skittles made a “big-game worthy” ad that only one person – a teenager in Los Angeles – will ever see.  Pre-game online videos featured David Schwimmer in a variety of roles, with the tagline “Exclusive the rainbow.  Taste the rainbow!”  It fit Skittles’ quirky personality, and it generated buzz for much less than five million bucks.

And let’s not forget Animal Planet’s annual Puppy Bowl, a prime example of capitalizing on the event without the massive investment.  For several years, it’s been the second-most-watched program on Super Bowl Sunday, drawing millions of viewers.

5. What’s on your dashboard?

The Super Bowl is that rare moment when people actually look forward to advertising.  This can create the desire to entertain.

Of course, entertainment isn’t the measure of advertising.  Effectiveness is.

This is where a device like USA Today’s AdMeter gets it wrong.  The AdMeter measures “likeability.”  But that’s not the same as effectiveness.  And we won’t know the effectiveness of these ads for some days.

As a challenger brand, you want behavioral change.  I’d guess the Pringles brand management team is watching the numbers to see how many new users it converted, and how many buyers purchase multiple flavors.

Some people can’t get enough of seeing a guy take a football to the crotch.  But will it motivate them to use Groupon?  That’s the question.

6. Was it worth it?

This is the question I always come back to.  And it’s one that matters to challenger brands, who must maximize their limited resources.

Many studies have shown that most Super Bowl ads don’t pay out.  There’s a reason why many advertisers have given the Super Bowl a shot, but haven’t returned.

And remember that we’re not just talking about marketing.  We’re talking about stewardship of assets.  Five million dollars can pay the salaries of a lot of intelligent people.  Would that be a better use of funds?

Leaders of challenger brands are compelled to ask: What is the best possible investment of each and every dollar?

We’ve posed these six questions to the Super Bowl advertisers.  But they’re also questions challenger brands should ask themselves.  You may never have a $5mm budget, and you may never appear in the Super Bowl.  But whatever the stakes you’re playing, make the most of the opportunities you have.

And, for lovers of strategy and tactics, you could do worse than this game between the Eagles and the Patriots.  One lesson: If what you do well is what the other guy doesn’t handle well – like the Eagles’ run-pass option – press that advantage.  Congrats to the Eagles on winning a game for the ages.

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’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.

Copyright 2018 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

A version of this article was originally published at and appears here with permission.