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We Should Call Them Super Bowl Publicity Spots, Not Ads

What is an ad and what is its purpose? General consensus states that the primary objective of advertising is to create persuasion. In contrast, the art of publicity is to create notice or attraction. Those two things are not always the same. At some point over the last 15 or 20 years, Super Bowl ads have obviously become an integral part of pop culture and according to some measures, more of a reason to watch the Big Game than the game itself. I’d argue that to be true, as I thought the first 20 minutes or so of this past game were somewhat boring.

So, why are Super Bowl ads not really ads at all? Simply put, I think they’ve lost the art of persuasion that has been replaced with publicity. 

Consider the two top ads, according to USA Today’s AdMeter, from Super Bowl XLIX. Those are the Budweiser ‘Lost Puppy’ and Always ‘Like a Girl’ commercials. Now don’t get me wrong, I liked both ads quite a bit, and for different reasons. But going back to our purpose of advertising, I would think that Budweiser would like to sell more beer and I’m sure if you own shares of ABI (AB InBev, Budweiser’s parent company), you’d agree. Unfortunately, as both an analyst and a beer drinker — I’m telling you that is just not going to happen as the result of our cute little puppy. In order to drive persuasion towards a brand, the advertiser must do one single thing extremely well and clearly in the mind of the consumer. That single and simple thing is to connect the outward properties of the product (or service) directly to the inward needs of our personal worlds.

Let’s go back and look at our lost puppy once more. What this ad does, at least for me, makes me feel warm and fuzzy about our cute little puppy coming home. I feel great when I see the horses stand up for the puppy and even better when they all come home. This means that ad did well, in that it connected with me emotionally. However, in no way does it connect back to the brand or product. I suppose that for the past 10-plus years, the use of Clydesdale horse as a symbolic representation of the brand does potentially create an indirect relationship. That said, is our little puppy to replace that now? If that was the case, why didn’t they use a Dalmatian (see top Super Bowl ad from 1999 — Budweiser’s ‘Dalmatians Get Different Jobs’)?

What about #LikeAGirl, Always’s acclaimed commercial on how society loosely uses the phrase “Like a Girl” and especially how young girls perceive that differently. In doing a little anecdotal research from this ad, I found a few things. First, when asking colleagues about this ad (especially women), there was an overwhelming response about how awesome the ad was and how it made them feel — clearly connecting with the consumer. At the same time, brand recall was astoundingly low as when I asked who made the ad, I typically got a blank stare. In reading about the ad, the premise was related to the drop in self-confidence in girls when they hit puberty. Now, obviously, the product in question is directly applicable to this life event and in that regard, the ad is making an indirect association of the message and to the brand. However, what I think Always achieved with this ad was again, excellent publicity as they associate their brand with this socially important message. But am I ready to go out and buy some P&G stock? Not quite yet, as I think they need to continue to work on connecting that key message and emotional story back to their product in a more direct manner.

This notion about Super Bowl Ads being a popularity contest shouldn’t be new to anyone. But I don’t see why advertisers don’t focus on doing both — driving publicity and persuasion.  At $150,000 per second, it’s a hefty price to be paid with little measurable return.

Do you remember Radio Shack’s "Back to the '80s" ad last year? Well, that ad scored well and the company’s stock soared as much as 7% the Monday following the game. But in terms of persuasion, after the dust settled, the ad ultimately left consumers with connecting the '80s celebrities in the ad to the still-'80s experience that is Radio Shack today. Now a year later, Radio Shack has been delisted from the NYSE, losing 90% of their value since then.

In Merkle’s analysis of advertising, specifically TV commercials, we have found extremely little correlation between the likeability of ads and their persuasion power. In fact, in the beverage category, based on an analysis of 131 commercials over several years, we found an 18% correlation between the entertainment value (i.e., likeability) of the ad and its impact on want to buy. However, if the ad made a positive connection between the personal and emotional needs and the product, that correlation jumps to almost 75%. 

So for you advertisers, next year’s Super Bowl 50 (not Super Bowl "L" apparently) looks like it’ll be over $5 million for a 30-second spot (note both of our top two ads from 2015 discussed above were 60 second spots). So for $5MM, perhaps we should consider selling something?