The Big Story About The Big Game for Super Bowl Ads is Brand Storytelling.

For advertisers paying $7 million for a 30-second TV ad in the NFL Championship game, the big story isn’t San Francisco 49ers versus Kanas City Chiefs, Brock Purdy versus Patrick Mahomes, or even Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce (even if they’re in your ad).

Advertisers need to please a lot of eyeballs.

For them, Super Bowl LVIII is about the 2024 Super Bowl of advertising and which brand ads will garner the most votes in the Super Bowl ad polls (winners get lots of press) and the most views on social media before, during, and after Sunday’s game. There’s a lot of pressure on marketing managers, ad agencies, and the creative team.

The NFL reports 200 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl LVII with 120 million in the U.S. – roughly 36% of the country. The most popular TV shows like Yellowstone only reach 11.5 million. How do you write a hit Super Bowl Ad for TV and social media?

How are this year’s brand advertisers trying to please?

AdAge reports that 2024’s Super Bowl ad trends include nostalgic marketing, influencers, creators, TikTok stars, virtual reality, and multiple celebrities in one ad. They also say AI may be in some ads and was used in early-stage brainstorming, but marketers and agencies have only trusted writing the ads to real humans.

As an ad copywriter, I felt pressure with regular TV ads. I never had a national Super Bowl ad, but I did create one that ran locally during the Super Bowl. I also worked on Spot Bowl for years – our ad agency’s national Super Bowl ad ratings poll. I gave each ad a title and description as they ran so we could get them up on the website for voting.

Our research of Super Bowl ads found the best way to please is story.

So, what makes one ad more likable to finish in the top ten of USA Today Ad Meter and Spot Bowl versus the bottom ten? When I became a professor my colleague Michael Coolsen and I asked that very question. Was it humor or emotion? Sex appeal or cute animals? This year will it be nostalgia or using TikTok influencers?

Our two-year analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice found the key to popularity was telling a story. It didn’t matter if you had animals or celebrities and used humor or sex appeal, the underlying factor to likability was a plot. Super Bowl Ad Poll ratings were higher for ads that follow a full five-act story arc and the more acts commercials had the higher the ratings.

The key is a five-act dramatic story structure.

Why five-acts? 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.

The classical drama framework we used was conceived by Aristotle, followed by Shakespeare and depicted by German novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag as a pyramid. His theory of drama advanced Aristotle’s to include a more precise five-act structure as seen below.

Five-act stories also draw views and shares in social media.

Ad rating polls of TV ads are one thing, but how does a story perform in social media? We wanted to find out, so we conducted another research study published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing. We analyzed 155 viral advertising YouTube videos from randomly selected brands in different industries over a year.

Videos that told a more developed or complete story had significantly higher shares and views. We coded the videos based on the same five-act dramatic structure in Freytag’s Pyramid: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolve.

Analyze this year’s Super Bowl ads for story with this template.

Try doing a little storytelling analysis for yourself! Use the downloadable template below. It describes what needs to happen in each act on the left. Then on the right fill out your description of what happened as you watch the Super Bowl ads.

Some will have all five-acts. Some will have only three, two, one, or even zero. In our viral ad study, only 25% of our sample were five-act stories. In fact, there were more zero-act ads at 31%. After coding for the number of acts compare your results to see how they fare in the two ad polls (Ad Meter, Spot Bowl) and in YouTube views.

Budweiser’s Clydesdales are back this year. How will they do?

In other Super Bowl LVIII news, Budweiser is bringing back its storied Clydesdale ads that they abandoned in 2015. The Clydesdale ads were storied because they told full five-act stories and finished in the top 5 of USA Today’s Ad Meter 8 times in 10 years.

In 2014, I successfully predicted that Bud’s Clydesdale ad “Puppy Love” would be the winner because it was a full full-five-act story and it did finish first in ad polls.

In 2016, I successfully predicted their first non-Clydesdale ad “Don’t Back Down” would not finish in the top 10 because it did not tell a complete story – it finished 28th. I recently found this article from iSpot.tv and how their data confirms our academic research findings.

If you’re interested in applying story to all forms of marketing communications our book Brand Storytelling explains how to follow this 5-act dramatic form for TV, online video, and all IMC touchpoints such as print ads, banner ads, direct, radio, and PR.

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