What Makes A Super Bowl Ad Super? Five Act Dramatic Form.

When I was an advertising copywriter I had an intuition about what type of ads worked and which did not, but mainly I and many of my colleagues stumbled into them. Sometime we would have a hit and other times we missed the mark. This pressure to perform becomes intense this time of year as over 111 million people tune into to watch a Super Bowl match between the top NFL teams, but also to watch the TV ads.

The Super Bowl of Advertising

There are even advertising polls and show dedicated to which are the “best” ads. Being one of the best pays off in additional attention, views and buzz. The more buzz you get for the TV ad before and after the big game the more you are getting for the 4.5 million investment. It makes those 30 seconds go a lot further.

So what makes one ad more likable to finish in the top ten of USA Today Ad Meter versus the bottom ten? When I became a professor at Johns Hopkins University my research colleague Michael Coolsen from Shippensburg University and I asked ourselves that very question. Then we conducted a two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials to find the answer. Is it humor or emotion? Sex appeal or cute animals? What is the secret ingredient to helping ensure a Super Bowl commercial is liked and talked about?

Remember studying five-act Shakespearian Plays in high school? There was a reason Shakespeare was so popular and why he used to tell a story in five acts. It is a powerful formula that has drawn people’s attention for hundreds of years. Starting with Aristotle’s Poetics in 335 B.C., dramatic theory was first developed. Aristotle consider plot, having a beginning, middle and end, to be the most important element in drama – even more important than character. Much later, in 1863, German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag developed his theory of dramatic structure advancing Aristotle’s to include a more precise five-act structure as seen below.

Freytag's Pyramid

We coded the over 100 Super Bowl ads in a two-year span for the number of acts developed in the commercial. Then we compared that number with the ratings number those commercials received in the top consumer Advertising Super Bowl Polls. After analysis we found a correlation between number of acts and higher ratings. In other words, the more acts in a commercial (a more complete story with a plot) the higher the ratings or likability. The results of the study were published in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice in the Fall of 2014. What about all those other factors like sex appeal, humor, emotion or animals? They didn’t matter. We found these variables all over. They appeared at the top and bottom of the polls with no discernible pattern.

Does story and likability sell? Likable ads are more likely to be viewed and shared multiple times increasing viral buzz and generating greater awareness. Other research has proven that online buzz increases ad recall, recognition and emotional response. The latest research claims a direct connection. Advertisers can buy consumer attention for those 30 seconds during the game, but when advertising hits social media, it is all about likability. People are drawn to and give their attention to story. Beyond Super Bowl ads where else have you seen story have an impact?

Keith Quesenberry Michael Coolsen