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.

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 starring 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 Bowl 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.”