Sunday’s relatively boring Super Bowl was apparently the third most watched TV show of all time. With about 112 million viewers, on average, it came in only behind last year’s Super Bowl and the one before that.
Advertisers reportedly paid $5 million for a 30-second spot. I didn’t see all the ads during the game but went back and watched all of them in order. Most were uninspired in my view. There were a few that were well done or funny or memorable.
A huge amount of writing was devoted to anticipating the ads and then, today, evaluating them based on buzz or social shares and mentions. As an exercise in pure “awareness” or immediate recall this is probably valid to assess performance. Yet most of the ads will go on have zero impact on sales — or even brand perception and recall over time.
Especially interesting to me were the wildly varied opinions about which ads “won” and which ones “lost.” For example, see: AdAge, USAToday, Wired, New Yorker, Time, Yahoo Sports. Indeed, there was little or no consensus about anything except that #PuppyMonkeyBaby was “scary” or “weird” and “can’t be unseen.”
I do believe that Super Bowl ads can work well in limited situations and for some purposes. But most are a massive waste of money — they also are a great deal more expensive than the reported cost of the airtime, when production costs, salaries and fees are factored in.
Super Bowl ads can work when they introduce something: a new product, movie, car (redesigned Prius, Kickstart, X-men, Amazon Echo). They can be effective in bringing awareness to a social issue (water shortages in developing countries, domestic violence). They can also be successfully used to create an association with a brand or product (social responsibility, fun).
But if they do remember anything, most people will remember the ad itself but not the product or brand behind it. Such ads don’t boost sales or create a better brand perception. My guess is that if you polled 1,000 people who watched the game very few would be able to remember more than about 4 or 5 advertiser brands. And when a product is mediocre no amount of money will help improve things — Budweiser is an example of this. None of its ads (or Peyton Mannings post-game interview mentions) will boost Budweiser sales.
Accordingly, a 2014 study by research firm Communicus argued that 80% of Super Bowl ads don’t help brands sell products or services. Wix says its ad last year did help; so the company returned as an advertiser this year. But there will always be exceptions.
GoDaddy had enormous success building brand awareness with its early raunchy Super Bowl ads. Those later had to be overcome by current management in changing the image of the company. There are other examples of success, but they’re in the minority.
Apple’s celebrated Ridley Scott-directed “1984” ad is perhaps the most effective Super Bowl commercial ever aired. Its iconoclastic imagery and message were completely in line with Apple’s brand positioning and it helped introduce the Mac. So it created massive awareness of the product launch.
In a very diminished way compared with the Apple ad, Mountain Dew’s #PuppyMonkeyBaby may well have been the most effective commercial of 2016, generating the most social media buzz — though much of it negative. Yet it did create massive (if only brief) awareness of a relatively new product (Kickstart). That will probably translate into some number of people trying it that wouldn’t have but for the ad.
Months from now #PuppyMonkeyBaby will likely be remembered by many but probably become disconnected from Mountain Dew and Kickstart. People will remember the “creepy” part but not the product.