The Super Bowl Ads: A Guide for the Rest of Us

(Reading Time: 10 minutes)

Friends, the Super Bowl is just a few days away.  That means the Super Bowl ads are just a few days away.  And that means the advertising media, and a few pundits, are working themselves into a lather right about now.

Take Gary Vaynerchuk.  He’s on record as saying:

“Super Bowl ads are underpriced.  Yeah, I said it.”

Medium.com, Jan. 29, 2015

And:

“When I buy my first brand, the first thing I’m gonna do is run multiple Super Bowl ads.”

ANA Masters of Marketing Conference, 2016

See that?  Gary Vee doesn’t even know what his product or service will be, let alone anything about its market or competitive situation, and he’s already committed to a tactical decision on its behalf.  This is obviously a problem, and we’ll come back to it.

Most of us, however, work for or with brands for which a Super Bowl ad is outside the realm of current possibility.  This is the case for over 99% of all the brands on earth, I’d guess.  It’s for the leaders and builders of these brands that I’m writing this today.

A 30-second Super Bowl ad this year costs over $5 million.  I didn’t spend $5 million in marketing during the five years I spent as a brand manager on Airheads candy back in the ‘90s.  When I was VP-Marketing of Farley’s & Sathers – a candy company that had over $600 million in revenue during my tenure – none of my brands, including segment leaders like Brach’s and Trolli, had a $5 million annual marketing budget.  Like most of you, doing more with less was one of the features of the job description.

So let’s look at the Super Bowl ads and the associated hype machine: What you’ll see, what will happen next, and some better questions to ask.

The Super Bowl Ads: What You’ll See

You don’t need to watch the pre-releases to know what you’re going to see.  In this area, history repeats itself with abandon.

If you have the following on your Super Bowl Ad Bingo Card, you will do well on Sunday:

  • Inspirational statements of purpose & values
  • Celebrities (sensibly used)
  • Celebrities (awkwardly shoehorned)
  • Anthropomorphic animals
  • Silly people doing silly dances
  • The unusual, the surreal, the flat-out bizarre (with or without reason)
  • Production values to rival a summer blockbuster movie

No shockers there.  By dawn, you’ll struggle to remember most of what you saw on Sunday night.  And that brings us to:

The Super Bowl Ads: What Will Happen Next

On Monday morning, we’ll gather around our respective water-coolers to talk about the ads.  The way that we talk about them often depends on the line of work we’re in.

Ask a common civilian – that is, someone who doesn’t work in advertising or marketing – and you’ll hear things like “not that great this year” or “meh.”  That’s been the case in my Super Bowl Ad Survey of Common Civilians over the last several years (admittedly, an unprojectable sample).  Perhaps you’ve observed similar results.

Those of us in marketing and advertising usually show up on Monday with some kind of opinion, because we know we’ll be asked.  (Or is it just my friends & family?)  We’ll do our best to identify the standouts, but let’s be clear: None of us know with certainty which ads truly worked.  Myself included.

There are lots of clicks and views at stake Monday morning.  Some business publications will ask a panel of local advertising folks for their thoughts on the best of the bunch.  I’ve seen more than one creative director opine that the best Super Bowl ad was the one that made him or her laugh the hardest.  This is dire.

The mass media will trot out its own take, most famously the USA Today AdMeter.  Importantly, the AdMeter measures the degree to which a panel of people liked each ad.  It says nothing about shifts in perception, behavioral change, or other things that matter, like… sales. 

On that point – and this is one of the very few outcomes I can promise you – some brand objectives will not be met.  Despite Gary Vee’s convictions, a fair percentage of Super Bowl advertisers would have been better off doing something else.

There’s the temptation to do some entertaining on this stage.  That’s what everybody tunes in for, right?  But entertainment is not enough.  As those of us with limited budgets know all too well: Advertising doesn’t have to entertain, but it does have to perform.

One of the most heinous violators of this rule was the Radio Shack Super Bowl ad from 2014.  This is the one in which Dee Snider, Erik Estrada and other ‘80s icons burst into a Radio Shack store and gleefully dismantled it.

People loved this ad.  It finished in the top five of USA Today’s AdMeter, so it received plenty of press and views after the game, too.

Dismantling Radio Shack in more ways than one. Image Credit: Time.com.

And less than five weeks after that Super Bowl, Radio Shack announced that it was closing nearly 20% of its stores – 1100 in total.  Radio Shack has filed for bankruptcy twice since.

Nostalgia?  Check.  Laughs?  Check.  Traffic & sales?  Oops.

Because of the hype, we’re all in danger of learning some very bad lessons.  That leads us to part three:

The Super Bowl Ads: Some Better Questions to Ask

After working on and with disadvantaged brands for nearly 30 years, I’m convinced that we often ask the wrong questions of this spectacle. 

Let’s start with a couple of reminders that I share with my clients often, and that apply here:

If BigCo did it, that doesn’t mean it worked.

And even if it worked for BigCo, that doesn’t mean it will work for you.

There’s a tendency to believe that if these massive brands make a move, that they must be on sound footing.  That’s not always the case.  No matter their pedigrees, brand leaders make bad decisions all the time.  And you will see examples of this on Sunday night. 

So the first step is not to accept what they do as gospel, but to question it.  Bring some healthy skepticism to the table.  “Was that the right thing to do?” is a fair stance to take.

I suggest three different “levels” with which you might evaluate the Super Bowl ads.  These work for ads on the other 364 days of the year as well.

Level One: How Was the Ad Itself?

Here, we’re looking at the ad as an isolated piece of creative.  Consider three aspects of each ad:

  1. Target Consumer – Exactly who are they speaking to?  Granted, the Super Bowl is one of 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?  The safety-minded?  Performance lovers?  And so on.

  2. Key Thought – What one thing does the ad try to convey to its target?  What does it want the viewer to do, think or feel?  Is a benefit or point of difference clearly communicated? 

  3. Ad or Campaign Idea – Sometimes Super Bowl ads are created just for the occasion; other times, they’re part of a larger 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?  Did these elements assist the Key Thought or conflict with it?

If you answer just these three questions for most ads, you’ll be thinking more critically than most viewers, including many marketers.

As one quick example, Porsche will advertise in Sunday’s game.  And in the 2018 Super Bowl, Lexus dropped a spot for the LS 500, a car with a starting price tag of $75,000.  When I see luxury brands like these in the Super Bowl, I spend some time at question 1: Why did these brands choose an audience of “almost everyone” for a product that very few can afford?  Are there not more effective means of targeting?

Level Two: What Surrounded the Ad?

Here, we’re looking not just at the ad itself, but at the entire push surrounding it.  If you’re going to spend $11 million per minute on an ad, you’re probably going to engage in some other activities to ensure its success.

This goes well beyond the question of whether or not to pre-release the ad.  This includes social media tie-ins, retail partnerships, on-site activation, custom landing pages and anything else in the marketing ecosystem.  The goal should be a mutually-reinforcing collection of activities.

Done correctly, an integrated approach is more than the sum of its parts.  Marketers who blow their entire budget on the ad alone are hindering their chances of success.

Level Three:  What’s the Strategic Context?

This takes the most digging.  It’s also where the most applicable answers are found.

Any time an ad is created, it’s with a goal in mind.  And that goal is not always as simple as “sell more stuff.”  (Though that certainly never hurts.)  Pick a few Super Bowl advertisers that are most interesting to you, and dig into their recent histories.  What’s their sales trend?  Have they innovated?  What are their competitors up to?  Are market forces favorable or unfavorable for them?  And so on.

The strategic context will help you identify what the advertiser is trying to accomplish.  Let’s take a look at some Super Bowl ads from Big Beer in the last few years:   

Image Credit: YouTube
  • In 2015, Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” ad took potshots at craft brewers and did not land well.  This is because Bud’s parent company, AB InBev, had recently purchased several craft brewers, as was swiftly pointed out.
  • In 2016, Budweiser’s “Not Backing Down” spot proudly proclaimed, among other things, that it is “not imported.”  Again, Bud is owned by a Belgium-based conglomerate, and many of its sister brands are very much imported.
  • In 2019, Bud Light launched broadsides against Miller Light and Coors Light for their use of corn syrup in the brewing process.  The approach seemed to be: “The mass-market pie is shrinking, but it’s still very large, and we’ll fight you for it.”  MillerCoors eventually sued and won, and I’m guessing Bud Light did not win the “Miss Congeniality” award at the next industry banquet.

Taken together, these moves smack of desperation.  But when you know the context – specifically, that the Big Four have been bleeding sales and share for years – that desperation starts to make sense.  (You may still question the messaging choices, though.)

On Sunday, Budweiser will run a spot called “Typical American,” which you can already view online.  What do you think: Is this a better strategic approach for Bud to take (and not just a better ad to make)?

There are at least two more very good questions to ask:

Bonus Round: How Did the Non-Advertisers Capitalize?

This is historically my favorite question of the bunch, because it’s where brands get to flex their creativity and imagination.

Some examples:

  • Skittles, whose branding I’ve long respected, hasn’t advertised in the big game in the last few years.  But in 2018, they made an ad they showed to one person only.  In 2019, they wrote and staged “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical,” starring Michael C. Hall, for one show only. Both are in line with Skittles’ off-center worldview, and both generated plenty of press.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
  • In 2016, Ritz crackers pre-launched a series of videos with snack ideas.  Since Ritz wasn’t an official sponsor, it couldn’t use the words “Super Bowl.”  But its “Big Game Snacks” racked up nearly 31 million online views that year alone.
  • And let’s not forget Animal Planet’s counter-programming of the Puppy Bowl.  For years, it’s been the 2nd-most watched program on Super Bowl Sunday – a great option for those who just aren’t into the game.

These brands offer possible answers to a question that smart brand leaders ask all the time:

How can I get the most bang for a fraction of the buck?

Whatever your brand’s strategic context, ask this question often.  Answer it well and your investments will work harder than the next guy’s.  That’s a source of competitive advantage. 

The Meta-Question: Was This the Best of All Possible Investments?

“Who made the best ad?” is kind of a ground-level question.  It presupposes that advertising is the correct answer in the first place. 

I’m obviously a believer in the power of smart advertising.  But advertising alone can’t solve your deepest business issues. 

This is my issue with Gary Vee’s statements at the top of this piece.  He’s committed to a solution – “multiple Super Bowl ads” – without even identifying what problem he’s trying to solve.

Depending on your brand’s situation, challenges and values, here are some other viable uses of $5 million:

  • In-depth partnerships with key retailers
  • An upgrade to a production facility
  • A whole lot of research
  • The salaries of a lot of intelligent people
  • The best on-site day-care facility in the region

This is the core problem with the “best Super Bowl ad” game.  We tend to judge the ads based on how much we liked them, or at best, how effective we think they will be.  Even a month down the line, we rarely ask who got the job done – if we even know what the objectives were in the first place.  And we’ll never know if advertising was the best investment of those millions.

And that’s why “which ad was best?” is about the worst question we can ask.

Here’s a quick summary of some better questions to ask – and to apply to your own brands:

  • Have we made sharp choices in our targeting?
  • Are we clearly conveying one key thought?  If we have more than one key thought, what will we cut?
  • Is our ad or campaign idea compelling, memorable and unique?
  • Are we leveraging this idea consistently and cohesively across all marketing vehicles?
  • Will this approach help us win in the market and solve the problems in our strategic context?
  • Are we thinking creatively to get the most for our money?
  • Is this the best investment we can make at this time?

I hope I’ve provided you with some food for thought for other questions to consider, and I welcome your thoughts and further ideas. As I say before every Super Bowl: Go Browns!

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands and businesses 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 in Chicago.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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