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.”

Prediction: Budweiser Clydesdale Commercial Will Drop Out of Top 5 in Super Bowl 50

In 2014 I predicted that Budweiser’s Clydesdale “Puppy Love” would be the winner in ad rating polls like USA Today Ad Meter and SpotBowl.com in this blog post: “Shakespeare Predicts ..” I based this off of my research with Michael Coolsen that analyzed two years of Super Bowl ads. We found that the key to Super Bowl ad popularity is whether it tells a story or not.

Why is being popular or likable important? Even with over 110 million viewers, paying $5 million for 30 seconds is only a wise investment if the Super Bowl ad can deliver social media buzz, media coverage and be remembered over time which can come from ranking high in the Super Bowl Ad ratings polls.

For Super Bowl 50, I have to predict that the 2016 Clydesdale commercial “Not Backing Down” will not win. It may even back down the charts below the top 10. Budweiser has had a good run with Clydesdale Super Bowl ads finishing  in the top 5 of USA Today’s Ad Meter 8 times in the last 10 years. Most of those Clydesdale ads told full stories with the horses playing staring roles. In the two years they dipped below the top 10 (#17 in 2011 and #26 in 2012) the Clydesdales were not main characters and the ads did not tell compelling complete stories.

Watch the last 10 Budweiser Clydesdale Super Ads below and make your own prediction. Why were these ads in the top 5 all year’s except the two? Which ads tell full stories and star the Clydesdales and which do not? What about this year’s ad?

Our research was based on Freytag’s pyramid (see end of post) that divides a story into five parts called acts (like a Shakespearean play). These acts form a dramatic arc or plot: Inciting Moment, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Moment of Release. We found that ratings were higher for commercials that follow a full five-act story compared to those that did not. The more acts commercials had (3 versus 2) the higher the ratings.

UPDATE: “Not Backing Down” Finished 28th in the final USA Today Ad Meter Results. Watch the top finishers including Hyundai, Heinz, Doritos, Honda and Toyota told stories.

2016 Clydesdale “#NotBackingDown” Ad Meter #?

This spot has a lot of “Not”s. “Not Ponies,” “Not A Hobby,” “Not Small,” “Not Sipped,” “Not Soft,” “Not Imported,” “Not A Fruit Cup,” But this is not a story and not a winning super bowl ad. I like the music and look, but the Clydesdales and Plot take a back seat to product shots and bold brand bragging that most people will not like in the ad polls.

2015 Clydesdale “Lost Dog” Ad Meter #1

This spot has it all. It stars the Clydesdales, has a puppy and most importantly tells a full five act story that draws the audience in and was number 1 in USA Today Ad Meter.

2014 Clydesdale “Puppy Love” Ad Meter #1

This spot stars the Clydesdales and tells a full five act story that pulls us in with rising action, climax, falling action and resolve. It was number 1 in USA Today Ad Meter.

2013 Clydesdale “Brotherhood” Ad Meter #1

Again, this spot stars the Clydesdales and tells a full five act story. Its official title was “Brotherhood,” but in the Ad Meter poll it is called “Horse and Trainer Reunited.” It was also number 1 in USA Today Ad Meter that year.

2012 Clydesdale “Return of the King” Ad Meter #26

What happened here? This stop starts out saying “Based on a True Story,” but doesn’t tell a full story in the commercial itself. This spot picks up after the end of prohibition and simply shows a lot of people celebrating. Even though the Clydesdales are delivering the first cases of Budweiser in years, they are really not the main characters. They take a back seat to an extended celebration of the brand and no tension rising to a climax, falling action or resolve that is needed to draw us in and like the spot as compared to others. As a result it dipped down to number 26 in USA Today Ad Meter.

2011 Clydesdale “Old West Elton John Feeling” Ad Meter #17

Why did this ad dip down? This commercial down introduce characters and starts to build some tension as the Old West Outlaw walks into the bar. We get somewhat of a climax when we don’t know if he will shoot the bar tender for running out of Budweiser. But there wasn’t much character development for viewers to get sucked in. And even though the Clydesdales delivered the beer, they were not the star. We see only glimpses of them running to deliver that case of bottles. Instead of the music adding to the build up of the story like other spots, this one ends old west people signing Elton John as a punchline to a joke. This spot was number 17 in USA Today Ad Meter.

2010 Clydesdale “Fences” Ad Meter #4

This spot stars the Clydesdales and tells a full five act story. “Fences don’t come between friends” It was number 4 in USA Today Ad Meter that year.

2009 Clydesdale “Circus” Ad Meter #2

This spot stars the Clydesdales and tells a full five act story again. It was number 2 in the 2009 USA Today Ad Meter poll.

2008 Clydesdale “Team” Ad Meter #1

This may be a Rocky spoof, but it was a full story and stared the Clydesdales and the Budweiser Dalmatian. It was also number 1 in the USA Today Ad Meter poll.

2007 Clydesdale “Street Dog” Ad Meter #2

We can see these earlier Clydesdale commercial made the Budweiser Dalmatian more of the star, but the dog is was another brand spokesperson the audience could be drawn into and their was a full story built around them. “Street Dog” was number 2 in the USA Today Ad Meter poll.

2006 Clydesdale “Young Clydesdale Dreams Big” Ad Meter #2

A classic full five act story build around a young Clydesdale dreaming to pull the Bud cart some day. This Budweiser ad was number 2 in the USA Today Ad Meter poll.

What do you think? Can you see how the 2016 Budweiser Clydesdale Super Bowl commercial is more like the 2011 and 2012 spots when they dipped down to 17 and 26 rankings versus the 8 other commercials that were all in the top 5? What is your prediction? Perhaps they have another Clydesdale spot that will surprise audiences on Sunday …

“Freytag’s Pyramid” illustrates the five act plot structure popularized by dramatist such as Shakespeare to reveal the power of story. Use this to judge for story:

Super Bowl Ads, Super Bowl Bowl Commercials, Super Bowl XLVIII, USA Today Ad Meter, Spotbowl.com, Freytag's Pyramid, Shakespeare, Dramatic Form, 5-Acts