Super Bowl Ads Work (Almost Every Time)

What is it about the Super Bowl, the most expensive venue in the advertising universe, that gives otherwise savvy marketers permission to act the fool and offer up commercials that are somebody’s version of funny, outrageous, cutting edge—and not much else?

That last year compelled one-third of them to spend more than 10 percent of their entire annual media budgets on this single event (per Kantar Media)? That attracts eight to 10 first-time advertisers each year (Kantar)?

What is it? It’s 100 million plus viewers whose responses to their commercials defy all conventional wisdom about what constitutes “effective advertising.”

Warning: this may confuse you.

First of all, chances are you can find a poll out there somewhere that will measure viewers who . . . “like” your commercial, or think it’s “funny,” because there’s a lot of them and they’re all over the place. Last year, for example, USA Today’s Ad Meter buried CareerBuilder’s “Casual Fridays” spot, but Spike.com rated it their second funniest. And Budweiser’s Clydesdale “New Friend” spot was one of Fox’s 10 worst. No worries: it made USA’s top 10. Kellogg’s School of Management Review rated Bridgestone’s spots among the game’s worst? Who cares? USA Today ranked them in their top 10. And how’s this for clarity? The Wall Street Journal’s poll shows Audi’s “Green Car” commercial was voted the game’s best—and worst.

But none of these polls is remotely indicative of the potential impact of these commercials on the brands’ business. And according to a study conducted by Millward Brown Optimor for the NFL, it doesn’t matter anyway. The study claims that, based on Nielsen sales data from “several dozen Big Game advertisers . . .  brands that advertise on the Super Bowl see an average sales uplift of more than 11 percent in the following month. This generates an ROI from Super Bowl ads 250 times greater than ROI from the average TV ad” (Joanna Seddon, CEO, Millward Brown Optimor, “Super Bowl, Super Score,” Adweek, Feb 8, 2010).

On the other hand, according to the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association’s 2010 Super Bowl Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, the amount viewers intend to spend on merchandise advertised in the Super Bowl has dropped more than 12 percent in the past two years (About.com/Retail Industry: “2010 Super Bowl Consumer Survey Results: Shopping, Spending, Commercial Viewing”).

So which is it?

There were 39 advertisers on the 2010 Super Bowl (Kantar), so Millward Brown’s sample of “several dozen advertisers” suggests they analyzed virtually all of them—good, bad or ugly. And what this study seems to suggest is that the content of commercials that run on the Super Bowl damned near doesn’t matter. They all averaged 11 percent sales growth over the next month. In fact, adding “the tremendous brand-building power of the Super Bowl itself . . . doubles the (ROI) returns.” Just run it, baby.


On the other hand: “A major brand that ranked No. 1 on the Ad Meter in a past year yielded an average ROI of below $1 while a different ad from the same brand ranked No. 20 and yielded an average ROI of almost $3” (Millward Brown).

I’m confused.

According to a recent Nielsen poll (Nielsen Wire), “51 percent of Super Bowl television viewers expect the commercials to provide the best entertainment of the event.” Instinctively, these expectations have little direct relevance to real business. And how could they? They’ve been nurtured through the years by the likes of commercials featuring flabby, hairy men in underwear (and what’s with that, anyway, Bud Light, CareerBuilders, Dockers?), farting Clydesdales, crotch-biting dogs, been-there-done-that talking animals—including a chimp entertained by pseudo-farts from a whoopee cushion—and “too raw for TV” commercials. Today 76.3 percent of Super Bowl viewers think commercials that run on the Big Game are, hey, “mainly about entertainment” (Annual Survey, RAMA, 2010).

That’s entertainment? Regardless, the Millward Brown study seems to be saying this is enough to generate significant “sales uplift.” Farts and all.

Except sometimes it isn’t.

This was never more evident than in the 2000 “Dot-Com Bowl,” when 17 emerging dot-com companies ponied up in excess of $2 million each of their investors’ money to run 30-second commercials in the Super Bowl. Seven of them were already out of business by the next Super Bowl. But they were “funny,” or, better said, a “reflection of the marketer’s immaturity,” as one published financial analyst called them. (Of course there were other variables, but still.)

The most recent version of a first-time, dot-com Super Bowl advertiser that tried to be funny was Flo TV’s commercial last year that urged “Jason” to “change out of that skirt.” Showing up in Fox’s poll as one of the 2010 Super Bowl’s 10 best, the company was out of business by October.

The joke was apparently on them.

On the other hand, GoDaddy.com defied all dot-com odds when it ran its first-ever commercial on the 2005 Super Bowl. Full disclosure: I produced this ad (“Who’s Your Daddy?” Adweek, Feb 21, 2005), which generated 5 million Web hits in 48 hours and increased the company’s market share from 16 percent to 33 percent over the next few months. It was an outrageous spot that arguably stayed on the right side of the line of good taste and political impropriety. Viewers gave it mixed reviews, but GoDaddy’s business went through the roof as a result of it.

Since then, GoDaddy has aired even more questionable commercials on the Big Game, but its six-year investment in the Super Bowl has built its market share of domain registrations to 50 percent today. It has succeeded in business despite failing to earn any kind of favorable viewer ratings for its Super Bowl efforts. But it’s in the game—and this is apparently enough, according to the Millward Brown study.


On the other hand, here’s another major exception: in the past decade Anheuser-Busch has spent $235 million on Super Bowl advertising (Kantar), far more than the second-biggest spender, PepsiCo’s $170.8 million. According to USA Today’s Ad Meter, the brewer won the highest rated commercial outright for 10 straight years (1999-2008), with either Budweiser or Bud Light. It never had less than three of the top 10 “most liked” spots; more often, A-B had six or seven of the top 10. As late as 2009 and 2010, it placed three in the top 10.

Bud and Bud Light ran some 70 commercials in those 10 Super Bowls. And yet, in that time frame, Budweiser shrank from a 25 percent share of market to less than 10 percent today. Bud Light decreased 2.5 percent in 2009, its first loss in its entire 27-year history—a trend that continues.

So much for $235 million of the “best liked” Super Bowl commercials. But A-B is again slated to be one of the biggest spenders on this year’s game. After all, Millward Brown says, “The brands that are guaranteed to see money back from a spot in the Super Bowl are established brands.”

Or, maybe not.

Here’s who isn’t confused: Fox. The network sold out this year’s Super Bowl and stands to reap more than $200 million, with tens of millions more to affiliates for local advertising. And now Millward Brown’s study for the NFL has armed it with justification for imposing rising costs on advertisers, who the net knows will not be able to resist the lure of 100 million viewers ready to be . . . entertained.

And who can blame them?

On the other hand, one of every five viewers thinks Super Bowl advertisers should not spend money on the game and pass on the savings to their customers (RAMA Survey, 2010).

But wait, they’re going to buy this advertised stuff anyway, aren’t they?

Tim Arnold is an ad agency veteran. He can be reached at possible20@aol.com.


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