Super Bowl Sunday: When Ads Matter

February 5, 2016
Behavioral Science, Marketing

It's the one weekend when America actually looks forward to TV commercials. Watching the spots that air during the Super Bowl has become tradition. They spark watercooler conversations and online debate.

"Ads are usually an annoyance, they're not usually something that we watch," said Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. "The Super Bowl is very different. All of a sudden they're something that we pay extra attention to. The moment it becomes the focal point, all of a sudden we're looking at it with examining eyes, to figure out all the details about it."

The companies that spend millions to create and place those ads know that.

"The companies care because the audience is huge - last year it was estimated as 114.4 million viewers in the US, the largest viewership of any single program," said Julie Edell, a Fuqua marketing professor. "The audience is very diverse, cutting across gender, race, and income. Companies spend a record amount to reach this audience, so they generally put forward their most creative ads, often showing a new spot. The cost to air a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl this year is $5 million."

Professor Chris Moorman, director of the CMO Survey, said ads "only work when they connect with icons, themes, or memes that we recognize."

To that end, the best ads have "a narrative or story that builds out an important source of value that delights the customer," Moorman said, or "a surprise that we find clever, interesting, or funny. Companies must be careful to ensure that they communicate with customers with these ads. If customers don't remember their names, the ad may be clever but it will not sell product. The best ads are also just the beginning of the story that companies then build online with additional video, contests, and other forms of digital engagement."

Edell said the ads that are best remembered tend to tell a heartwarming story.

"For example, the Budweiser "Puppy Love" spot from the 2014 Super Bowl was a crowd favorite and has been viewed over 2 million times on You Tube," she said. "The follow-up in 2015, "Lost Dog," was also the best liked ad from that Super Bowl."

At $5 million a slot, Super Bowl ads are no small investment and their impact can be hard to gauge.

"The problem is that it is very difficult to measure the effects of a single ad exposure on the bottom line for any brand," Edell said. "The social media effect can be quite large. Facebook reported that click-through rates for Facebook ads were up 9 percent on Super Bowl Sunday night over prior Sundays in January, and the conversion rates increased by 415 percent."

Moorman said Super Bowl ads are the beginning of a process of building customer knowledge, linking a strong positive emotion to a brand, or reminding customers about it.

"Customers should be moved to act in some way after the ad," she said, "whether it is sharing information about the ad with others, searching for information about the brand online, or buying the brand if they are in the market for it."

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