What if Super Bowl commercials were like digital ads?
We can all learn a lot from how advertisers treat America’s ultimate tentpole event, says columnist Lewis Gersh.
Picture this. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Last play. Patriots trail by four. Tom Brady fires a pass to Julian Edelman at the back of the end zone. Touchdown.
But wait. Was Edelman inbound or not? Hard to say. A replay review will determine if the call stands and the Patriots win — or if the call is reversed and the Falcons win.
The suspense builds. Finally, the official makes his way to the center of the field and turns on his mic. “After review, the ruling on the field is…”
At that moment, a popup message appears on the screen. To learn the verdict, it says, you need to check your email. You frantically check your inbox. Nothing! Then you realize the email is in your junk folder.
You open the email, and it instructs you to click on a link. You click on the link and discover that you need to update the video software on your device. You download and install the update and click the link again.
It’s loading! But instead of the replay official, you see… a Clydesdale. You’ll have to sit through a 30-second Budweiser ad before finding out who won the greatest Super Bowl ever played.
Under those circumstances, no ad would be well received — not even Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” commercial, widely considered the most popular in Super Bowl history.
Even the best content needs the right context
That hypothetical situation goes to the heart of what’s wrong with so much digital advertising, which, as we’ve already pointed out, often represents worst practices.
Super Bowl commercials, on the other hand, represent advertising’s best practices.
And it’s not simply a matter of good content versus bad. It’s also about situational targeting and context. And here the contrast between digital ads and Super Bowl commercials is particularly stark. In digital, the relationship between the consumer and the ads often goes beyond adversarial to downright hostile.
Contrast that to the unique Super Bowl phenomenon in which viewers look forward to the commercials. They expect to be treated to ads that are fun and of the highest quality.
Just as important, those ads are presented in an ideal situation. A football game, with its frequent timeouts, has a lot of breaks that happen organically compared to other forms of television, like movies where commercial breaks disrupt the continuity.
During a tense game, viewers welcome the comic relief that a good commercial can provide. In addition, many people watch the Super Bowl in large groups. Critiquing the big-budget ads has become a part of the viewing experience.
What it comes down to, as Marcel Marcondes, vice president of marketing at Anheuser-Busch InBev, told Fortune magazine, is this: “Consumers are looking for brands they respect.”
Sending the best message money can buy
For AB InBev, Super Bowl ads have become a series. They’re a part of Americana. That Super Bowl tentpole has raised Budweiser up far beyond their target market to the point where people who don’t even drink beer identify with them.
Other companies that are closer to direct response than branding have also used Super Bowl ads effectively. Even though some of their ads created a backlash, GoDaddy’s campaign with Danica Patrick put them on the map in a big way. That’s a good example of somebody taking a big risk that paid off for them.
And Super Bowl commercials are risky. It’s like entering a high-stakes poker tournament. AB InBev, for instance, is shelling out around $5 million per 30-second spot. So you have to ante up about $167,000 per second just for a seat at the table.
And if you don’t produce something high-quality enough, you not only burn a ton of money, but you also create ill will by making people feel as if you’ve wasted their time. Or you insult or offend them. Any kind of misfire on a Super Bowl ad can have serious consequences.
But get it right, like Budweiser, and the payoff is worth it, regardless of which calculation you prefer. A 2014 BrandAds survey found that Super Bowl ads increased viewers’ likelihood of buying Bud by 37.8 percent. Another study determined that Bud’s ROI on Super Bowl ads was 172 percent.
What happens when the circus leaves town?
So why don’t brands apply the lessons from the Super Bowl year-round? Actually, some do. They’ll consistently produce ads that make you chuckle.
But, really, no brand should expect to replicate the results of a Super Bowl ad at any other time of the year. It’s a phenomenon that developed almost by accident, starting with Apple’s “1984” ad more than 30 years ago. From its high-level concept to its production values, that commercial was a game-changer. And while Apple’s only goal at the time was to throw down the gauntlet to IBM, they also unwittingly changed how companies approached their Super Bowl advertising.
What makes the Super Bowl unique among tentpole events is that the ads themselves have become a celebrated art form. Even if they’re not relevant to the product, they’re relevant to the viewing experience.
At every other tentpole event, market fit remains important. No one is tuning into the US Open or the NBA Finals just to see the commercials.
Rule of thumb: As a marketer, if you can’t look at an event and make at least a three-year commitment, you probably shouldn’t spend the huge dollars to be there.
Still, that’s not to say that smaller brands with no tentpole budget can’t learn anything from the Super Bowl experience. The primary lesson, as Marcondes said, is that brands need to earn consumers’ respect. And that applies to every advertising format, including digital.
Make that especially digital.
So, when the game ends late on February 5, and we find out whether a Falcon or a Patriot is headed to Disney, we should all carry those Super Bowl lessons with us after the tentpole comes down for another year.