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.

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?

Advertising Campaigns Are Dead: Brand Story Is The New Big Idea

When working as a creative in the advertising business we were obsessed with finding the Big Idea. We wanted that great campaign with the clever tagline that everyone would talk about, hand awards to, and of course make the cash register ring. This catch phrase was even turned into the CNBC talk show The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch.

The big idea was about running 6 month or annual advertising campaigns with three print ads, a radio spot, some banner ads and a couple billboards, etc. Soon enough the ad agency or brand manager or CEO would grow tired of the campaign and we would step up to bat and try to hit another one out of the park. Big ideas were tidy mini stories told in a series of well crafted and finely controlled media executions. And stories in advertising are powerful as my recent research on Super Bowl ads has proven.

We were creating integrated campaigns with digital and social media, but social wasn’t as mainstream as it is today. As of September 2013, 73% of online adults use social networking sites. Fully 40% of cell phone owners use a social networking site on their phone.

Because social media is so big today I think the big idea has to be different. In social media there are so many individual executions being created daily, by brands and their consumers, we need a brand story that doesn’t start or end, but evolves and is co-created over time through interaction with customers.

But to do this you need to know what that core story is first and have a solid social media policy in place, because you will have more than one brand story teller versus the traditional advertising copywriter and art director. Now we engage our customers in conversation. John Miller hit upon this in a recent Inc. article.

What do you think? Is the traditional advertising campaign idea dead? Don’t get me wrong, you still need a big idea and creativity. It’s just not such a tidy process. In a way, your ideas must be even bigger and more flexible to include trends and consumer comments and content.

In terms of social media and story telling, brands need to get out of the campaign mindset and start living out a bigger story on a daily basis.