American Marketing Association / Alter Agents

What Makes the Best Super Bowl Ads?

February 2, 2016

What? The Super Bowl is unlike any other television event when it comes to advertising: People actually want to see the commercials.
So What? Viewers want to see new and different commercials on Super Bowl Sunday, so companies have to balance that demand with the necessity to stay on target and on brand.
Now What? Google’s new marketing product, Real-Time Ads, allows an ad element like images or text to be updated in real time so a brand can build a story with itself at the center while still leveraging “buzzability.”

Responsive TV and Google’s Real-Time Ads raise the stakes for Super Bowl 50 advertisers

The only field more crowded than the Republican primaries is the ad line-up for Super Bowl 50. Like with the political contest, few contenders will stand the test of time. Sadly, most of the dozens of commercials airing during the big game–commercials that will cost upwards of $5 million for 30 seconds–won’t be remembered the next day by the public.

What, then, makes a great Super Bowl ad? First, it’s important to realize that the Super Bowl is unlike any other television event when it comes to advertising. Research has shown that the vast majority of viewers (upward of 75%) actually look forward more to seeing the commercials than the game. Madison Avenue couldn’t create this kind of buzz if it tried.

The peculiar nature of Super Bowl makes it tempting for advertisers to design for entertainment over promotion. But is that good for the brand? In a word, no. A clever punchline alone does not sell more products or services. Rather, a successful ad is one that has the brand integrated into the story. That’s true for the Super Bowl or any TV event.

That said, viewers have come to expect Super Bowl TV commercials to be new and different. There’s an undeniable ‘Wow!’ factor that must be met, or viewers will be disappointed or, even worse, disinterested.

For my money, last year’s Budweiser Super Bowl “Lost Dog” ad accomplished both goals of brand integration and audience captivation. If you recall, the ad features an adventuresome puppy that accidentally leaves his horse farm and is seemingly lost forever, only to be rescued by his band of Clydesdale brothers. What’s interesting about the ad is that the brand–Budweiser–is never mentioned. We don’t even see the pup’s owner open a Bud to celebrate the return of his best friend. Yet, everyone knows the ad is for Bud even before the end card reveals the famous logo.

The ad works because it leverages hallmarks of the brand: Clydesdales, rural America and sentimentalism. It elicited, almost demanded, an emotional response. The brand not only created a memorable ad but it was virtually impossible to discuss it without mentioning “Bud.”

Contrast that success with a forgettable failure. For its Super Bowl ad last year, Squarespace bet on creating a ton of buzz by what seemed a formula for success: celebrity (Oscar winning actor Jeff Bridges) + highly original (OK, just plain weird) storyline = brand awareness. To be fair, Squarespace is a relatively new brand with nothing of the equivalent of the Budweiser Clydesdales to propel recognition. But the ad itself seemed unaware of Squarespace. The creative simply depicts Bridges chanting “Om” next to a sleeping couple, apparently unaware of his presence. It was longest 30 seconds in last year’s Super Bowl.

While the ad got lots of attention, none of it translated to a boost in business for Squarespace (which builds websites). Why? It didn’t pass the water cooler test. You could talk about the weird (creepy?) Jeff Bridges ad without ever recalling its sponsor. That’s not surprising: Jeff Bridges meditating has nothing to do with building websites, so there was nothing to connect the dots for viewers.

The biggest new development in this year’s Super Bowl TV commercials is the advent of real-time response. With Super Bowl 50, Google introduces a new marketing product, Real-Time Ads, which will capture “micro moments.” By allowing an element like images or text to be updated in real time, a brand can build a story with themselves at the center while still leveraging “buzzability” around the game, half-time activities, happenstance (remember the lights going off during the 2013 Super Bowl, not to mention Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction in 2004?) and–for the really bold–even other ads.

Twitter, of course, has owned the live messaging space for years now. Google Real-Ads changes the space by bringing that immediacy into the television ads themselves.

That kind of spontaneity kind of turns the whole industry and aura of Super Bowl ads on its head. Often, Super Bowl ads are months in the making, but in a world now attuned to a 24-hour news cycle, and an environment of mobile devices and memes, that lag time can be dangerous for a brand banking millions of dollars on 30 seconds. What is relevant a half a year ago can be vastly different from what matters now and memes aren’t popular for more than 48 hours.

With Google just making the announcement, only a few Super Bowl advertisers will be capable of capitalizing upon Real-Time Ads, but it highlights a new path to grab those crucial brand mentions. Another pathway to responsive TV is’s real-time metrics, also being rolled out for the Super Bowl. Advertisers won’t have to wait days, or even hours, to find out who is watching their spots, receiving data for view rates and impressions as the big game unfolds. Quite literally, advertisers will see if consumers are changing the channels in the middle of their commercials.

In the new world of responsive TV, you can hide–but only for a moment.
Rebecca Brooks, founder and partner of Alter Agents marketing research agency in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor.

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