Do Super Bowl Ads Even Work?

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

Written by Wayne S. Roberts

Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images Sport

The feverish interest in Super Bowl advertising traces it’s origins to 1984, when Apple used the soon-to-be global event as the platform to launch its 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, big brands and their ad agencies have tried to capture the same lighting in a bottle with varying degrees of success. From the Budweiser 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.

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Without a doubt, Super Bowls ads 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, the agencies that make Super Bowl spots swear up and down that they generate a measurable sales increase for their client’s brands. So says Rob Siltanen of Siltanen & Partners, a Los Angeles-based advertising agency that has created sever Super Bowl spots 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 a column for in advance of Super Bowl XLVIII last year.

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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. But $4.5 million—plus another $1-million 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 Tucson, Ariz.-based firm Communicus, which did the research. They found most ads they tested don’t increase purchases or purchase intent. CEO Jeri Smith told Ad Age that she believes the “brand association with Super Bowl commercials is much lower than you’d get with a typical (TV) buy.”

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 only to have them draw a blank and ask, “What was the product?”

What if you took a different approach? Imagine for a minute that you have been handed a $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.

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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” ad that would have the same lasting impact. That’s because they know the Super Bowl, and other big event ads, often 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 still makes 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.

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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. Target your resources to the people most likely to want what you offer. Engage them, offer an incentive, and reward their loyalty.

And keep in mind: not all of them slug beer, gobble nachos or like anything about Katy Perry. Hell, most of them probably don’t even like football that much.

Wayne S. Roberts is president and chief creative officer of Blade Creative Branding, a Toronto-based company specializing in strategic branding, creative advertising and innovative online solutions.


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