Super Bowl, Super Bust?

Big Game Ads Make for Great Headlines But Do Big Gambles Like This Really Pay Off?

The long-standing tradition of hyping the Super Bowl, and the ads that go with it, is more about appearance than results.

The feverish interest in Super Bowl ads traces its origins to 1984 – that’s when Apple used the soon-to-be global event as the platform to launch their first Macintosh computer. The George Orwell-inspired spot set the world on fire and propelled Apple to top of mind in a market dominated by those nasty old Big Brother types at IBM.

Ever since then, big brands and their ad agencies have tried to capture the same lighting in a bottle with varying degrees of success. From the Bud-Weis-Er frogs, to the Waaasssaaap guys and the e-Trade baby, they’ve succeeded in at least one thing: making millions of people watch their ads, even if they have no interest in football.

Without doubt, Super Bowls ads do capture people’s attention, mostly because they make for great media fodder as a result of the relentless hyping they get, before and even after the big game.

Still, the debate swirls about whether they increase their advertiser’s sales.

Predictably, agencies that make Super Bowl spots swear up and down that they generate a measurable sales increase for their clients’ brands. So says Rob Siltanen, of Siltanen & Partners, a Los Angeles-based advertising agency that has created several Super Bowl commercials for major clients.

“I have long believed the Super Bowl to be one of the smartest investments a company can possibly make,” he wrote in Forbes in advance of Super Bowl XLVIII last year. (Source: Forbes)

But he’s just as quick to point out that the spots work because they act as leverage for the PR push, social media effort, theme-related window displays, and in-store materials that follow.

In my view, that means they “work” if numerous targeted strategies are coordinated to get the job done.  Hmmmm … 4.5 million bucks (plus another $1million in production, generally) is a very expensive lever, no?

The other side of the debate centres on research that claims 80% of Super Bowl ads don’t help sales at all.  Indeed, the $4.5 million advertisers are spending for a 30-second Big Game ad this year actually buys clients a much bigger chance that their ads won’t work, according to the Tucson, Ariz.-based firm Communicus. They found most ads they tested don’t increase purchases or purchase intent.

CEO Jeri Smith says they find the “brand association with Super Bowl commercials is much lower than you’d get with a typical (TV) buy.” (Source: USA Today)

She blames the underperformance on the overemphasis Super Bowl ads place on entertainment value. But as ad industry legend David Ogilvy once wrote, “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.” Think about it: how many times have you shared a “great” ad with someone who asks “What was the product?” … and you drew a blank?

What if you took a different approach? Dream you have just the $4.5 million media budget. In round numbers, it could buy you:

  • Close to 20 billion Facebook ads, which would give you a new ad, every second, for the next few centuries;
  • Close to 4 billion banner ads on countless sites and platforms across the country;
  • Millions of paid search clicks with that would guarantee top-of-page results for months.

Think of the metrics you could glean from that investment. Imagine the engagement you could generate. The exponential growth in your brand community would create multitudes of informed and motivated brand ambassadors who would actually remember your product, not just your ad.

The truth is, ad agencies love the “Big Idea” mantra. I know from personal experience that many agency types dream of producing their version of a “1984” style ad that would have the same lasting impact.

That’s because they know Super Bowl, and other big event ads, often do as much to put the branding and advertising profession in the spotlight, as much as the products being pitched.

As cute as a Budweiser puppy ad is, Bud is still the same old suds. Back in 1984, what Apple had on its side was innovation the world wanted. And the agency that created the ad, by leveraging Orwell’s timely cultural relevance, resulted in an iconic commercial that broke through and stayed around for decades.

But if you want to elevate your brand and your product, stop dreaming about lightning in a bottle and start thinking about what you offer and why it matters to people. Then target your resources to the people most likely to want what you offer. Engage them, offer an incentive, and reward their loyalty.

But keep this in mind: not all of them slug beer, gobble nachos or like anything about The Weeknd. Hell, most of them probably don’t even like football that much!


Wayne S. Roberts

The Globe and Mail calls Wayne S. Roberts "an ad industry provocateur." Maybe its because he's never seen the point of playing by the ad game rules that place awards above results, while offering spec work instead of real value to win accounts. Throughout his career, Wayne has maintained a defiantly independent streak characterized by his insistence that agencies must be honest, direct and passionately invested in their clients' success. His pioneering work in espousing the brand community perspective has been a touchstone of his belief that branding is more than just logos, websites and ad campaigns; it is the fundamental way human beings connect with each other to create communities and launch movements that have changed our world.

Wayne S. Roberts has 66 posts and counting.See all posts by Wayne S. Roberts