Why You Shouldn’t Be Swayed by the Popularity of Super Bowl Ads

Data often tells a far different story

Your opinion doesn’t matter. Mine doesn’t either. Not really. 

Because opinions don’t drive business results. In fact, opinions often mislead. They can be like a head fake, as football coaches call it. Those coaches teach defenders to ignore the runner’s head and focus on the hips, because the hips don’t lie—the runner is heading where the hips are pointed, regardless of where the head is looking. It’s a lot like the old retail adage, “Don’t read the customers’ lips, read their feet.” 

When it comes to the effectiveness of Super Bowl advertising, it’s the customer’s behavior that matters most.

Savvy marketers, merchandisers and certainly hedge fund traders watch for intent signals—searches, web traffic, app downloads, foot traffic—to which way the business is heading. Research that my company has participated in has shown very high predictive correlations (for us geeks: r-squared coefficients averaging above 0.80) between search behavior and sales lift and market-share changes across dozens of different industries. Social sentiment and opinion surveys can’t demonstrate anything like that. It’s not even close.

Yet we keep using weak and irrelevant opinions when talking about advertising—especially in the Super Bowl, the biggest media and advertising event of the year. Smart, accountable marketers and their CEOs, CFOs and boards rationally decide every year to invest over $10 million for a single Super Bowl ad. They don’t use opinion to make that decision. They use hard, investment-grade data that shows that a well-executed ad will move their business forward. 

I could opine like every other thought leader about which ads my team and I enjoyed the most based on our collective wisdom as marketing and data experts and savvy consumers of advertising. In fact, as we were crunching the post-game data, we had that very conversation. But here’s the thing: We knew we were probably wrong. We’ve worked with our data for our clients long enough to trust the data over our preferences. Our clients do the same every day, and they see their business accelerate.

Consider an example from Super Bowl 57. USA Today’s Ad Meter, which compiles panelists’ opinions, rated LiveNation’s ad for U2’s upcoming “Achtung Baby” Las Vegas residency at the new MSG Sphere as the worst ad. According to EDO’s data gathered from sources like Google and SimilarWeb, that 15-second ad (a bargain buy versus a standard 30-second spot) generated 7.4 times more consumer engagement—behaviors like people searching for “U2 at the Sphere”—than the average Super Bowl 57 ad, ranking it 5th out of over 100 ads measured. LiveNation will take that confidently to the bank. 

Meanwhile, the USA Today’s Ad Meter says panelists voted The Farmer’s Dog’s 60-second spot as the best ad of the Big Game. I’m sure the team at The Farmer’s Dog are relatively pleased with that vote, but as a direct-to-consumer challenger brand, what’s most important is increasing consumer engagement that’s predictive of business outcomes. Interestingly, The Farmer’s Dog spot generated an average amount of engagement for a Super Bowl ad, ranking 63rd in EDO’s data.

One more interesting case in point: Uber Eats and DoorDash are duking it out over merchant and consumer share of the food delivery market. Uber is cleverly leveraging its rideshare strength to promote Uber One, a service that rewards subscribers with discounted fees on Uber rides and Uber Eats deliveries. According to USA Today’s Ad Meter, Uber’s nostalgia-inducing, Diddy-produced flurry of one-hit-wonder artists generated a 5.12 score on a scale of 1 to 10, ranking it 32nd. DoorDash’s spot, featuring some influential chefs, scored a 4.53 for a 47th rank. That’s probably considered a nice win by the Uber team (though it’s not clear what to do with a 5.12 score). But I bet they’re saving the big high fives for the numbers like EDO’s that show 9.4 times more people searched for Uber One than DoorDash in the minutes following their respective ads. That kind of performance moves a business and a stock price.

Ultimately, brands should not ignore opinions. M&M’s took this year’s Super Bowl as a chance to move past some controversy by enlisting the beloved comedienne Maya Rudolph to invent a new candy (the hilariously dubious “Candy Coated Clam Bites”). M&M’s clearly decided it needed to change some opinions. The USA Today voters didn’t get the joke, placing the ad third from last. Are the folks at M&M’s disappointed? I doubt it. M&M’s was the 10th most searched brand advertised during the biggest TV event of the year. 

I’d bet that ad changed some hearts and minds.