Super Bowl weekend is here, and with it the annual debate about whether Super Bowl advertising — an absurdly expensive orgy of exuberant consumerism — is worthy of its reputation as marketing’s most defining moment. Super Bowl ads are shrouded in misconceptions, in part because so few of us are able to learn how much mileage brands get out of their top-dollar ad buys. But here are the myths we can safely debunk:
1. A Super Bowl ad isn’t worth the cost.
Super Bowl ads don’t come cheap. This year, the price tag is $4.5 million for a 30-second spot — and that covers just the fee paid to the network hosting the game. Millions more can be spent on celebrity appearances, music licensing, agency fees and production.
And to what end? “Most of them don’t work,” marketing professor Ira Kalbof the University of Southern California wrote in the Huffington Post. “They cost a lot and produce questionable returns to those that pay for them.”
On Thursday, NPR’s Shankar Vedantam declared, “These companies are either getting ripped off or they are ripping themselves off.”
It’s true that some studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of Super Bowl ads don’t increase purchases, and that people have a hard time recalling the brand associated with a Super Bowl ad they watched. But on balance, the numbers indicate that a Super Bowl ad is worth the investment for the companies that can afford it — assuming the commercial is any good.
2. The most memorably creative ads are Super Bowl ads.
The phrase “Super Bowl ad” has become shorthand for the pinnacle of each year’s TV marketing. Google “best commercials,” and many of the results you’ll get are lists of “best Super Bowl commercials.”
In the pre-YouTube era, the Super Bowl truly was one of the few times you could expect to see big-budget, well-crafted ads. But today, agencies produce masterpieces throughout the year, often tied to no event whatsoever. When Adweek rated the top 10 ads of 2013, only one (Ram’s “Farmer”) was a Super Bowl ad. When we tallied the best of 2014, not one Super Bowl spot made the list.
But the link between quality commercials and Super Bowl commercials is so ingrained that people regularly misremember their favorite ads as Super Bowl ads. Old Spice’s smash hit “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was recently lauded by a senior writer at one of the world’s top ad agencies as his favorite Super Bowl commercial; Yahoo TV rated it No. 7 on its list of the best Super Bowl spots ever made. But the ad didn’t appear during the Super Bowl. Chiseled spokesman Isaiah Mustafa first said “Hello, ladies” on Feb. 4, 2010, three days before the Super Bowl. Thanks to its timing and attention-grabbing quality, the ad is one of many modern classics often attributed to the Super Bowl in error.
3. Releasing an ad before the Super Bowl will steal its thunder.
“What we don’t want to do is destroy the magic of the spot by showing it beforehand,” Nissan marketing exec Fred Diaz recently told the Wall Street Journal. Several brand marketers maintain that opinion, but they’re going against a consistent lesson from recent Super Bowls: The most successful ads of the game were often released several days in advance.
Volkswagen’s “The Force” (with the adorable little Darth Vader) was released online the Wednesday before 2011’s Super Bowl and had a staggering 12 million-plus views before it aired on television. Volkswagen and ad agency Deutsch LA knew they had something people would love, so why delay getting it out there? Similarly, last year’s “Puppy Love” Budweiser ad went live four days before the game and was hailed by Adweek and by the USA Today Ad Meter as the Super Bowl’s best commercial.
Airing a spot early can also help a company prepare for any potential backlash, as GoDaddy learned this past week. The Web-hosting company pulled its original ad concept – a parody of “Puppy Love” – on Tuesday amid criticism that it was endorsing puppy mills. GoDaddy will run a different ad during the Super Bowl instead.
4. Prominent brands don’t need Super Bowl ads.
It’s probably true that you already prefer either Coke or Pepsi — or, if you’re indifferent on the subject of sugary sodas, you’re most certainly aware that these brands exist.
But major brands continue to go big with their advertising — and often see big returns. A Stanford University study determined that Budweiser generates as much as $96 million from its Super Bowl advertising. Subtracting the costs of producing and placing the ads, researchers estimated the brewer’s return on investment at 172 percent.
The same study found that one of the biggest benefits of Super Bowl ads is that consumers learn to associate those brands with parties and other gatherings. That’s great news if you make potato chips, soda or beer. But when two competitors advertised during the same game, the researchers found, the benefits were eroded, creating a sort of stalemate. If one of the competitors dropped out, the remaining brand would reap all the benefits.
That may be what happened when Pepsi passed on the Super Bowl in 2010 to focus more on social media and digital marketing options. After that decision, Pepsi dropped from No. 2 behind Coca-Cola to No. 3 behind Diet Coke. Pepsi has returned as a Super Bowl advertiser ever since.
5. Sex sells.
“Sex sells on the Super Bowl,” was GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons’s simple explanation for his company’s cleavage-centered ads. Doritos immediately signed Ali Landry to a three-year contract after a Super Bowl ad in which she acrobatically ate the chips in a laundromat lit up. Dozens of cars bearing the imprint of writhing, Carl’s Jr.-eating women seem to testify that the oldest cliche about advertising still has a hold on advertisers and consumers.
Except it doesn’t. Judging from the nearly monastic lineup of ads revealed before Sunday’s game, Super Bowl salaciousness is on the decline, perhaps because advertisers are realizing that consumers don’t respond well to it. An estimated 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers are women, and a 2013 study published in Psychological Science found that women have a negative reaction to sexualized ads, especially if the products are relatively low in cost.
Even GoDaddy might be absorbing the message, this year dropping its PG-13 shenanigans in favor of other odd scenarios, like bodybuilders racing toward a spray tan salon. The site thought it had struck gold in 2010 when it featured racing icon Danica Patrick in a sapphic massage scene. Instead, according to consumer polling firm Ace Metrix, the ad scored dead last among viewers.
David Griner is digital managing editor of Adweek.com.
The Washington Post