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An attempt to understand what makes a good Super Bowl ad

Are you ready for some research?

Hey there, reader. Did you know the Super Bowl is coming up this week?

Of course you know. Over 100 million viewers tuned in last year to catch the big game and while that is a decline in viewership compared to years prior, it’s still a lot of people tuning into a singular event.

The showdown between my beloved New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams is a big draw for many, but if you are going to be watching, where do you fall dear reader? Is the game the big draw for you? Or are you going to be tuning in to see the ads?

Recently, Peter Mackey (Invoke’s Chief Research Officer) and I conducted a Live webinar where we talked with 109 Super Bowl viewers about what makes a good Super Bowl ad and what they thought about prior Super Bowl ad “winners” to try and understand how brands can make best use of their Super Bowl ad dollars.

And the first thing we learned in this session? If you are tuning in to see the ads, you’re not alone. 94% of the viewers we talked to said the ads factor into their enjoyment of the game (Top 2 Box).

How much do the ads factor into your enjoyment of the Super Bowl? (n=109)

How much do the ads factor into your enjoyment of the Super Bowl? (n=109)

And I know. That might seem like a “no duh” type of stat (of COURSE everyone loves the ads!) but think about it for a second. In what other situation do the advertisements play SUCH a big role in one’s enjoyment of the programming being sponsored? It’s no wonder that brands and agencies put so much behind what is the biggest advertising day of the year. I read recently that the average going price for a 30-second spot during the big game is $5 million. So yeah, brands should obviously be doing all they can to make the most of those 30-60 seconds.

So what do viewers think make a good Super Bowl ad?

At the start of the session, we began things broadly and asked viewers what they think makes a good Super Bowl ad. And as you can see from the word cloud before, humor plays a big role.

Word Cloud – What makes a good Super Bowl ad? (n=109)

Interestingly, as you can also see in that word cloud above, viewers also expect Super Bowl ads to be memorable and quite a few mention the presence of animals as a key indicator.

Humor, memorability, and animals. But there has to be more, right?

In addition to asking point-blank what makes a good ad, we also wanted to get below the surface so we showed our viewers some successful ads of the past few years and asked some questions to better understand what makes one ad a more successful Super Bowl spot than other ads. We showed four different ads spanning the last 5 years, all of which scored at or near the top of USA Today’s Ad Meter and represented of range of advertising types – humorous, emotional, celebrity-driven, and social message.

The ads we showed are below, along with their respective USA Today Ad Meter scores:

Kia “Hero’s Journey” (2017)
USA Today Ad Meter score: 7.47

Doritos “Ultrasound” (2016)
USA Today Ad Meter score: 6.60

Always “Like a Girl” (2015)
USA Today Ad Meter score: 7.10

Budweiser “Puppy Love” (2014)
USA Today Ad Meter score: 8.29

In the session, we showed all these ads in random order and asked a mix of closed and open-end questions to both understand why all four of these performed well during their respective games to understand foundational “musts” of a Super Bowl ad and also attempt to uncover why they show differences across measures such as those noted above.

When we asked viewers what they like about all of these ads, humor/fun were mentioned in varying degrees as positives for three out of the four ads shown (Kia, Doritos, and Budweiser; we will get to Always in a little bit.) Based on what we learned earlier in the session, this was not a complete surprise. But looking at the table below, it was clear there was more to the story. The Budweiser “Puppy Love” ad scores high across all Top 2 Box key measures compared to the other ads shown in the session.

Ad Key Measures – Top 2 Box (n=109)
letters indicate a significantly higher performance

And in addition to this, 53% of viewers rank the Budweiser ad first in terms of being what they expect from a Super Bowl ad, which makes this ad top-ranked on this measure.

How do these ads rank in terms of being what you would expect from a Super Bowl ad? (n=109)

So what is it about the “Puppy Love” ad that makes it a winner among winners? Well, for one, the ad does also have one other element viewers note as something that makes a good Super Bowl ad – animals! And before we move on, NEVER underestimate the power of puppies and horses.

But something else comes to light when looking through reasons why viewers rank ads high or low on being what they would expect from a Super Bowl ad. The Budweiser ad often ranks high because viewers have an emotional connection to it (finding the story cute or touching) in addition to it being funny/fun:

It’s funny, cute and memorable. It makes me feel good so that’s why I think it’s a perfect example of a Super Bowl ad.” (Budweiser – “Puppy Love”)

Meanwhile, the ads that fall to the bottom in the rankings don’t show this type of balance, according to viewers. The Always ad, while well-liked for its message, is seen by some as too serious and lacks the humor or excitement viewers expect from a Super Bowl spot. Those that rank the Doritos ad low often say the humor in it is too over-the-top or simply just not their kind of funny. The Kia one also doesn’t rank as high often due to viewers noting it as too silly.

So does it come down to a balance between heart and humor?

Look, none of this is a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Different brands, different products, different advertising strategies all come into play when considering a Super Bowl spot. And looking back over ads of the past creates a whole other set of considerations as ads often reflect the times they live in. Take the Always ad for example. As I said, this ad is seen by some as not being all that good a fit with the Super Bowl, but some of those that score the Always ad so low (often, men) appear to be on the defense due perhaps to the political climate or similar controversy being already on their minds due to ads like the recent Gillette spot:

“…Is insulting to at least half of the viewers watching the ad. Provides a dated and ill-informed view of how men act toward and feel about women. It makes the viewers either turn off the ad or be upset with the brand after watching and they still no nothing more about the brand.”

But still, this research does provide some insight into what viewers are looking for from their Super Bowl ads – while humor obviously plays a big role in Super Bowl advertising expectations, creating an emotional connection is important as well and can be what makes an ad endure. The Budweiser ad was the oldest ad we tested in this session and it resonated the strongest across nearly every measure. While the Doritos ad was seen as too over-the-top and the Kia ad as too silly in terms of humor for some and the Always ad was seen as too serious, the Bud ad appears to hit the right balance between heart and humor.

As we head into Super Bowl weekend, keep an eye out for ads that appear to strike the right balance or may lean too far one way or the other and I will be back with a wrap up after the big game to take a look at this year’s hits and misses.

Oh, and go Patriots!

Wayne Goodreau About the author

Wayne Goodreau has been in the market research industry since the year 2000, working on both the vendor and client side across a number of qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Joining Invoke in 2011 and currently employed as Research Director, Wayne has since worked with a number of Invoke’s clients helping them better understand their consumers and customers through the power of large-scale real-time decision making.

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