To Win the Super Bowl of Ads and Social Media Don’t Bench Your MVP – Story

You may have heard about people in Vegas betting on the Super Bowl game, but brand marketers bet millions on the game every year as well. With the cost of $5 million for a 30 second Super Bowl ad and brands spending up to an additional 1 million on promotion to garner social media attention there is a lot riding on the ad game. We could call this the Super Bowl of Advertising and withe all the attention on views and shares it could also be the Super of Bowl of Social Media.

But with only 15% of the 60 to 70 ads run during the game able to make the top 10 why take such a risk? In an age of fragmented media and multiple device distraction, the Super Bowl is the last place advertisers can over 100 million people focused on watching the ads. Last year Google/YouTube reported that 330,000 hours of Super Bowl ads were played back online during the game. Not only are consumers watching, they are re-watching their favorites. This additional social media buzz is a big draw.

The risk is high for brand marketers, but also for the advertising agencies they hire. There is at least one reported case where an ad agency lost a 60 million dollar account for their Super Bowl ad not making the Top Ten list in USA Today’s Ad Meter despite noteworthy past performance. Interestingly the turning point for that brand and their agency seems to have come from leaving behind the previous MVP of their ads – chimpanzees.

What can we learn from the winners of the Super Bowl of ads? The proclaimed King of Beers, Budweiser, is the consumer confirmed King of Super Bowl ads. No brand has had more top performing Super Bowl ads than Bud and if they had an MVP it would have to be Budweiser’s Clydesdales. Clydesdale Super Bowl ads have finished in the top 5 of USA Today’s Ad Meter 8 times in the last 10 years. An 80% success rate is amazing.

Even Tom Brady and Matt Ryan only complete roughly 65% of their pass attempts. With an exceptional success rate Budweiser decided to bench its MVP in last year’s Super Bowl ad “Not Backing Down” where the Clydesdales and story arc took a minor role to product and brewery scenes. The result was dropping down to 28th in the poll. It would be like only playing Brady and Ryan a couple downs in the big game.

Does this mean the secret to Super Bowl Ad success is animals? Not necessarily. Out of USA Today’s Ad Meter top 5 since it started in 1989 only about 34% stared animals. That’s not very good betting odds. Plus, if you look at the rest of the ads below the top 10 and even the ones at the bottom of the poll many featured animals.

Like with MVPs such as Brady or Ryan it’s not just the players you also need good plays to win. For commercials it’s not just the characters, you need a good plot to attract and hold attention. The series of plays called in the game and the actions in the commercial move a story forward creating drama and tension. You have protagonist (Brady or Ryan) and antagonists (Patriots or Falcons) – opposing forces.

I just described Gustav Freytag’s theory of drama known as Freytag’s pyramid – the five-act formula used by Shakespeare. My research with Michael Coolsen analyzed two years of Super Bowl ads and found the key to Super Bowl ad popularity is whether it tells a story or not. It didn’t matter if you had animals or celebrities and used humor or sex appeal, the underlying factor to likability was plot. Super Bowl Ad Poll ratings were higher for commercials that follow a full five-act story arc and the more acts commercials had (like 3 versus 2) the higher the ratings.

Most of the Budweiser Clydesdale ads told full stories with the horses playing staring roles. In the three years they dipped below the top 10 (#17 in 2011, #26 in 2012, and #28 in 2016) the Clydesdales were not main characters and more importantly the ads did not tell compelling complete stories. Based on this playbook for winning Super Bowl Ads how will the do this year?

Reports indicate the Clydesdales will make only a brief cameo yet the commercial does tell the story of German immigrant Adolphus Bush’s journey to America. In a “Moneyball” type strategy, if the brand does tell a good story there just could be enough dramatic arc to make the top 10 despite the diminished role of their MVP Clydesdales. Of course, like the game itself there could be some upsets, but depending on story is a good bet for any brand when it comes to the Super Bowl of Advertising and Social Media.

Take a look for yourself. Here are the #1 Ad Meter Budweiser Super Bow commercial “Lost Dog” from 2015, last year’s #28 Super Bowl ad “Don’t Back Down” from 2016, and this year’s 2017 Super Bowl ad “Born The Hard Way.”

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