“I’ve done a number of Super Bowl ads. And that is the best advertising of the year. That is when people realize they’re going to be compared directly against other ads.”
Jerry Seinfeld

The Super Bowl is about much more than just football. The competitive stakes for brands are equally high.

According to one recent consumer survey, three-quarters of the Super Bowl’s 100 million viewers say they intend to watch the commercials, while 30 percent say the ads are a “major” reason for watching the game. No wonder companies often pay upward of $10 million, all told, to produce and place a 30-second ad, or multiples of that for longer spots.

Yet many Super Bowl commercials are mediocre at best, and fail to engage the audience, drive sales, or differentiate the brand. Why?

A disorderly game plan

Part of the challenge is the lack of consensus on how to define “success.” Stakeholders such as corporate executives, advertising agencies, franchisees, and field sales teams may all gauge success differently. The ad agency dreams of winning creative awards, the CFO digs in on the budget, the channel partners clamor for a short-term sales boost, the CMO seeks to build brand equity, and the CEO strives to please the board and key investors.

Some spots resonate internally but don’t connect with customers. Or committee-driven groupthink prevails, resulting in a least-common-denominator anodyne and unmemorable result.

That may explain Mercari’s forgettable 2021 Super Bowl ad. The commercial offered no reason to use the digital marketplace rather than competitors such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and Craigslist. In marketing terms, Mercari failed to communicate a differentiated brand positioning. The question for marketers is, how was Mercari intending to measure success? It’s far from clear.

There are objective metrics, such as media measures offered by Nielsen, social media tracking and web analytics tools, or retail sales data. Ad agencies and in-house analytics teams often have their own models and frameworks. Yet most techniques tell only a part of the story and are tactically informed but strategically void. Other, more comprehensive measures require in-depth understanding of statistical modeling or fluency with marketing jargon to deploy effectively, and thus fail to resonate at the boardroom level.

What advertisers need is a structured framework that defines business success in marketing terms and is broadly clear and useful for all the company’s stakeholders.

That approach comes down to four key questions. Does the ad or campaign:

  • Achieve key objectives?
  • Engage viewers and remain memorable?
  • Prompt social sharing?
  • Communicate the brand positioning?

1. Does it achieve key objectives?

All sorts of promotional campaigns fail before they even launch because the marketing goals for the effort aren’t clearly defined. Are you trying to generate awareness and interest to support a new product launch? Stimulate direct consumer response through retail sales, site conversions, or social sharing? Build brand preference against a key competitor?

Promotional channels each favor different objectives. More than 90 percent of American adults still listen to local AM/FM radio, which makes it a great choice for geographically focused brand awareness. (Think your local car dealership.) Affiliate marketing is ideal for acquiring digital customers. Email marketing is cost effective for driving repeat purchases from existing customers. Printed catalogs and TV infomercials can be excellent direct-response vehicles. Social media facilitates influencer sharing of brand messages.

Match your desired objective to the correct promotional channel and you have a much better chance of achieving your goals. Successful Super Bowl ads generally focus on one of four objectives:

  • Reinforce the brand’s image

    Thanks to consistent brand messaging, Snickers’ young male target customers already believe that “Snickers Satisfies” their hunger. Their 2010 ad featuring Betty White and Abe Vigoda humorously reinforced that idea.

  • Power a social or viral campaign

    Super Bowl ads can generate social media engagement through a linked campaign across multiple media channels. You don’t even need a TV ad to launch such a campaign: Chipotle’s 2020 “TikTok Timeout” campaign used Justin Bieber and a user-generated video challenge, generating 95 million online interactions during the game without an actual ad.

  • Introduce a new product or brand

    In the early 1980s, IBM PCs and their clones dominated personal computing. Apple’s “1984” commercial, directed by renowned filmmaker Ridley Scott, prepped consumers to believe Macs would be friendlier and more democratic than the Big Brother–type incumbent.

  • Reposition an existing brand

    Marketing luminaries Al Ries and Jack Trout once famously wrote, “Mind-changing is the road to advertising disaster.” But there are occasional exceptions. The 2010 Old Spice ad “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” helped alter younger men’s views of the venerable brand. A 2017 Mr. Clean commercial reinforced the conventional view of the product as an effective cleaner while humorously introducing a sexier, more contemporary version of the brand’s iconic character.

2. Is it immediately engaging and memorable?

Most promotional campaigns depend on repetition. But in the Super Bowl, that would be prohibitively expensive for most brands, so being immediately engaging and memorable is essential. The spot must work the very first time, so Super Bowl ads often use striking visuals, humor, catchy music, and celebrities. A 2019 Doritos ad combined all of the above, pairing Chance the Rapper with the Backstreet Boys, and featuring supersaturated color visuals, a global hit single, engaging dance moves, and a dash of ironic Gen Y humor. Always’s 2015 ad counterprogrammed the masculine themes of most Super Bowl promotions, its message of female empowerment standing out from the crowded field.

Memorable ads often feature compelling stories that generate strong emotions. A tender 2010 Google spot used a series of web searches to tell the story of a Google user meeting a girl in Paris, falling in love, getting married, and starting a family with her. A genuinely memorable Super Bowl ad can pay dividends for months, even years, after the game. Coca-Cola is still earning media exposure for its 1980 “Hey Kid, Catch!” spot, featuring the feared linebacker Mean Joe Greene, an ad widely considered to be one of the best ever.

These ads quickly engage the target audience, and then tell “product hero” stories that pack an emotional wallop, making them memorable. Even when the details fade away, the core brand message remains.

The Big Game difference

What makes the Super Bowl special?

Typical broadcast advertising Super Bowl advertising
Fragmented audience + ad-free streaming: Hard to achieve a broad reach Simultaneously reaches ~100 million viewers—no other event comes close
Relies on multiple, repeated, and sometimes annoying messages to achieve memorability Repetition is cost prohibitive, so instant engagement and memorability are critical
Not a social phenomenon: TV couch potatoes, solo radio listeners in car Inherently social, either at a watch party in the home or out at a bar
Many valid approaches to audience targeting, budgeting, and media buys Audience is predetermined, and the price of a spot is essentially fixed
Multiple brand objectives are feasible depending on media strategy Most successful efforts focus on one of only four potential brand objectives

3. Is it share worthy?

Even if your key marketing objective is brand or product-launch related, the potential for your Big Game campaign to drive social sharing should be a key success criterion. Most viewers are socializing while watching the game, and discussing the commercials with each other in person and online. Given the high fixed costs of a Super Bowl ad, social media leverage is essential to maximizing return on investment.

Many brands use a live online “war room” during the game—responding in real time to consumer comments, game developments, or even other brands’ social media efforts. Marketers prep for the Big Game almost as hard as the players themselves: rehearsing scenarios, prebuilding creative executions, and pushing the brands’ ads out as teasers in advance of Super Bowl Sunday. When Beyoncé’s 2013 halftime show triggered a power overload that darkened the Superdome’s lights for 34 minutes, Nabisco’s Oreo team was already prepared to respond in real time with a brilliant Tweet.

The most powerful social media campaigns use multiple platforms. The 2021 “It Wasn’t Me” campaign that launched Cheetos Crunch Pop Mix featured a TV spot starring Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, an interactive Snapchat lens allowing participants to “steal” a free product sample, Twitter and Instagram hashtags, and a remix of Shaggy’s hit song on YouTube.

The best Big Game commercials can even change the language of popular culture. During the 1993 Super Bowl, McDonald’s ran a two-ad “Showdown” between NBA stars Michael Jordan and Larry Bird that permanently inserted the phrase “Nothing but net” into the lexicon. Budweiser’s 2000 “Whassup” spot accomplished a similar feat, with both the ad’s title and tagline (“True, true”) spreading virally via phone, email (in the age before social media), and person to person, before being further amplified by TV talk shows, late-night comedians, and news programs.

4. Does it communicate the brand’s positioning?

Why should someone buy your product or service? It’s such an elementary question, but one that many Super Bowl commercials, even those that are strong creatively, fail to answer.

Consider these likable, engaging automobile spots for Volkswagen’s Passat (2011) and Hyundai’s Genesis (2016):

Both ads are technically superior. They each grab the viewer’s attention with compelling visuals and ear-catching popular music, and their funny and engaging story lines are memorable.

But what exactly will viewers retain? Will they even recall what car was being promoted? “Oh yeah, that funny Star Wars ad with the kid and the car. That was great! Of course I remember it, I loved it! What brand was it for? Oh. Um, I’m not really sure. . . .”

The problem here is that both commercials focus on a high-tech feature (remote start and location tracking, respectively). But such features don’t particularly differentiate a Volkswagen from a Hyundai, or from any other make of automobile. There’s no core message about how the brand is special—just a fun story centered around a gizmo.

It’s possible the viewer will identify positively with the parents in the story and somehow link those emotional associations to their feelings about the brand being advertised. But that’s a tenuous bet to make when you are plonking down an eight-figure investment. A simple, direct brand message is best.

Other advertisers reach too far for a brand message they can’t actually own. Truck brand Ram received criticism for its 2018 spot featuring a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. Viewers rejected the connection between King’s message of service and a promotional message to sell pickups. A more socially conscious brand might have connected with this spot, but not Ram.

A stronger approach is to communicate clearly and directly the brand’s core, authentic positioning. Contrast the Volkswagen and Hyundai ads with Google’s 2020 “Loretta” Super Bowl spot, an emotional blockbuster with eye-catching, crisp visuals that tells a powerful and tender story. The brand message is clear and authentic:

The essence of marketing is to provide solutions to customers’ problems, meeting their needs and making a profit. Google offers a unique combination of search, photo storage, voice recognition, and artificial intelligence tools to help an aging widower remember his beloved wife. No other company could make this commercial.

Some may cry foul at this example—after all, Google already has a seemingly unassailable position in some markets (internet search in particular), so of course no other company could make this promise. But the power of a clear brand message isn’t limited to special categories such as online search, where network externalities create a natural near-monopoly.

Your local supermarket, for example, may sell a half dozen or more national brands of laundry detergent, which compete with private label and specialty offerings. But P&G’s Tide, the market-share leader in the category, differentiates itself with proprietary product formulations and a clear brand message that never deviates: Your clothes will be their cleanest with Tide. During the 2018 Super Bowl, Tide spent heavily to reinforce its brand positioning and won big with its “Every Ad Is a Tide Ad” campaign.

Tide’s series of spots parodied other categories of Big Game advertising—cars, beer, shavers, pharmaceuticals, even P&G’s own previous Super Bowl commercials for Old Spice and Mr. Clean. On social media, the company pushed the hashtag #TideAd, and pulled the entire package together with its tagline, “If it’s clean, it’s got to be Tide.”

Tide’s campaign successfully hit all four areas of Super Bowl success: it reinforced Tide’s brand image; engaged viewers and was memorable; was share worthy on social media; and distinguished the brand from the competition.

For marketers, that’s as good as it gets. True, true. Nothing but net.

Christopher E. Krohn is adjunct associate professor of marketing at Chicago Booth.

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