Are Super Bowl commercials worth the cost? Only if they tell stories that keep people talking after the game is over.
Creativity Creative Thinking

5 Brand Storytelling Missed Opportunities from this Year’s Super Bowl Ads


Super Bowl 50 didn’t draw quite as many viewers as last year’s record-breaking Patriots-Seahawks game, but it came in a close second. With 114.4 million viewers, Super Bowl 49 was the most-watched event in television history; this year’s game had 111.9 million.

Given the opportunity to reach such large, diverse audiences, it’s no wonder brands that can afford it are willing to shell out the cash to advertise during the Super Bowl—$5 million this year, up from $4.5 million in 2015. After all, it’s one of the few television events where viewers don’t skip the commercials.

I, for one, couldn’t care less about professional football. But as an adult, I’ve probably seen more games than I’ve missed. Why? I enjoy the camaraderie and the commercials. And I’m not alone. While 34.7 percent of adults say football is the most important part of the day, 17.7 percent get more excited about the commercials, according to the National Retail Federation.

But is a 30-second spot worth $5 million, especially when many viewers’ memories have been compromised by too much merry-making? Wouldn’t putting those millions of dollars into a sustained brand storytelling strategy be a much more effective way to attract and engage customers?

Research shows the answer to both questions is “yes,” and that the sweet spot might be somewhere in the middle—investing in Super Bowl ads that launch online storytelling campaigns.

Unfortunately, very few of this year’s advertisers got that memo.

The ROI of Super Bowl Ads

Is a Super Bowl ad worth the cost? This question has been debated for decades, with different studies producing very different answers.

For example, when research firm Communicus surveyed 1,000 consumers before and after Super Bowl games, asking about their intent to purchase products from certain brands, about 60 percent of ads didn’t make a difference in respondents’ buying decisions. And while Super Bowl ads do tend to be more memorable, because commercials often focus more on being creative and less on promoting brands, viewers only recall the company associated with ads about 35 percent of the time, versus nearly 50 percent for other ads.

Other studies, however, have found that when ads are particularly good, brands do get their money’s worth.

So, what makes an ad “good?” More importantly, what makes it memorable after the game is over and the post-game hype around “best commercials” has died down?

The answer: great storytelling that starts conversations and drives social shares.

Keith A. Quesenberry—a Johns Hopkins researcher who teaches marketing, advertising, and social media classes—conducted a two-year content analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. His findings: People rated commercials with dramatic plotlines significantly higher than other ads.

Take, for example, last year’s popular Budweiser’s “Lost Dog” commercial, which received the highest combined score on USA Today‘s AdMeter, TriVu’s Video Buzz, and Adobe’s Social Buzz rating systems. The ad has been viewed more than 24 million times and received tons of post-game exposure, on both traditional media and social media.

Sadly, this year Budweiser chose to relinquish its role as the reigning Super Bowl storytelling champion, and to instead defend itself against the rise of craft beer. (Note that this year’s ad is not faring well on lists of fan favorites.)

The second half of the Super Bowl success equation: extend the lifespan of ads with robust social media campaigns.

Ads that are all about football aren’t likely to get much play after the big game, when football season is officially over. And commercials featuring celebrities are a dime a dozen these days. Instead, marketers who want audiences to keep talking about their ads need to tell them stories worth talking about and continue the storytelling journey online.

5 Brands that Got It Right (But Could Have Done Better)

While most of this year’s advertisers used their allotted time to feature celebrity cameos or to make quick but forgettable jokes, a handful of marketers put brand storytelling front and center. Yet, with few exceptions, even these brands didn’t invest much time into thinking about extending the lifespan online, other than placing a hashtag in the corner of the screen.

Below are five noteworthy ads and ideas for how they could have gotten more social bang for their advertising bucks:

1. Hyundai, “First Date”

The top-rated commercial on USA Today‘s AdMeter, this spot features Kevin Hart as an overprotective dad who follows along on his teenage daughter’s date, making sure her escort knows Daddy is watching. This story is one to which most fathers and daughters can relate, which is what makes it a great commercial and what could have been the start to a great social media campaign.

I know I’ll never forget the time I invited a date inside, where my stepfather “happened” to be cleaning his shotgun. He insists he didn’t do it on purpose, and maybe he didn’t. But the look my date’s face, and the change in both his posture and manners, was priceless. Every time I share this story with a group of women, at least one or two chime in with similar tales.

This would have been a great opportunity for Hyundai to solicit such stories and share them on social media. Instead, the commercial simply drives viewers to its website to look at cars.

2. Intuit QuickBooks, “Storm’s a Brewing”

To promote its B2B tax preparation software, Intuit chose to highlight a customer, Death Wish Coffee Company, with a fantasy-adventure themed scene depicting Vikings caught in a terrible storm.

The graphics are definitely cool, and the decision to tell a customer’s story rather than your own is always a winning strategy. But one has to wonder if this ad would have been more powerful, especially with its B2B audience, if there had been less stylized drama and more true storytelling. This would have been a great opportunity to showcase the real-life challenges of an entrepreneurial company with a memorable name, and to follow it up with other interesting customer stories online.

3. Pantene, “Strong Is Beautiful/Dad-Do”

One of the cutest commercials of the night, Pantene’s ad featuring three NFL players styling their daughter’s hair is both funny and touching.

Pantene gets extra points for featuring extended videos of all three father-daughter duos on its website, but the conversation ends with “Are you ready to tackle a dad-do? Shop now.”

Instead, the cosmetics company could have used the opportunity to solicit videos of everyday men doing their daughters’ hair, and perhaps to host a contest on social media for the best “dad-do.” Likewise, this would be a great opportunity to share resources and expert tutorials for simple hairstyles dads could manage. But rather than starting a conversation, Pantene went straight for the conversion.

4. Colgate, “Every Drop Counts”

Rather than promoting toothpaste, Colgate decided to promote a cause, reminding audiences that, “Brushing with the faucet running wastes up to four gallons of water. That’s more than many people around the world have in a week. Please turn off the faucet.”

It’s a powerful message and a powerful reminder that small acts can make a big impact. To keep the conversation going online, Colgate created more than half a dozen tweets and posts for users to share on social media. In less than 24 hours, 16,511 people have pledged to save water and shared the message with their networks via Colgate’s website (that doesn’t include Likes, reposts, and retweets).

Colgate could have gone further, suggesting other simple ways for site visitors to save water, and perhaps asking them to share their own strategies. But it’s certainly a strong start, and one of the better multi-channel campaigns.

5. Jeep, “Portraits”

In a visually stunning montage of portraits, Jeep shares the history of faces and vehicles that symbolize its brand, ending with the tagline, “We don’t make Jeep. You do.”

This storytelling campaign doesn’t end with the inspiring commercial. On the Jeep website, fans can read the stories behind all the images in the commercial. Better yet, Jeep asks customers to share their own stories via social media and promises to feature some of them during the brand’s 75th-anniversary celebration this year.

In my book, Jeep wins the Super Bowl storytelling championship…hands down. How would your brand have continued the story?

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