Wednesday, February 5

Why Did Some Super Bowl Ads Swim While Others Sank?

USA Today released the results of its Ad Meter, an industry tool designed to capture public opinion surrounding Super Bowl ads. Nowadays, the popularity measurement is cited most often as an indicator of which advertisements won and which lost on their $4 million bid for attention.

What's missing from previous years is a foil that some serious marketers once appreciated. For a few years, HCD Research attempted to provide deeper insight into what makes advertisements work by measuring creativity, emotion, memorability, and involvement.

The Ad Meter really doesn't have depth in its methodology, but it still provides a baseline. In previous years, the top five effective advertisements were generally among the top 25 percent in popularity.

Top Five Super Bowl Ads for 2014 

1. Budweiser "Puppy Love," score 8.29 | 42 million YouTube views
2. Doritos "Cowboy Kid," score 7.58 | 1.5 million YouTube views
3. Budweiser "Hero's Welcome," score 7.21 | 750,000 YouTube views
4. Doritos "Time Machine," score 7.13 | 2.2 million YouTube views
5. Radio Shack – "Phone Call," score 7.00 | 1.2 million YouTube views

Alongside the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter, Budweiser "Puppy Love" also won most TiVo commercial replays and social media scores kept by the Super Bowl Digital Index at ListenFirst. And Puppy Love wasn't the only big win by Budweiser. "A Hero's Welcome: Full Story" contributed to some 44.3 million views on its YouTube channel (as of Feb. 3). It also ranked high among the best commercials according to Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch list that put "Phone Call" on top.

Rounding out the top ten are "Sixth Sense" by Hyundai, "Gracie"  by General Mills, "Empowering" by Microsoft, "Going All The Way" by Coca-Cola, and "Soundcheck" by Pepsi. Conversely, Dreamworks, GoDaddy, Sprint, Subway, and Bud Light rounded out the bottom.

Writing Effective Television Commercials

So where did some advertisers go right and some go wrong? The biggest winner of the evening across almost any measure was "Puppy Love" by Budweiser. It easily won in emotion, memorability, and share-ability. The only area where it really doesn't win is in creativity, but only because the commercial is a rewrite of a familiar storyline for Budweiser. It frequently taps animal friendship stories.

In fact, it was a friendship between a bull and a horse growing up that helped Budweiser capture the top spot in 2010. "Bull" is arguably the better of the two, despite also being a borrowed and recast idea.

Even so, the formula for Budweiser has been working all these years for a reason. When you dig deeper and compare the top ten commercials to each other, there are some apparent consistencies.

1. Emotive. As with all top advertisements, the best of them have positive messages that attempt to make an emotional connection, with the exception of Pepsi. The lowest rated commercials do not make the connection or, in some cases, like Chevy's ill-advised "Romance" commercial about studding bulls, are very negative.

2. Authenticity. All of the top advertisements are true to their brands, especially Radio Shack (which only gave up points to anyone who doesn't know the 80s). The bottom commercials tried to be bigger than the brand, setting viewers up with big stories or big celebrities before weak payoffs.

3. Connectivity. Almost all of the top ads work hard to make a connection between the public and their product. They pull you into a story, relationship, and place they take up in your life (like Gracie by General Mills). The bottom ads aim for push messages before screaming "look at me."

4. Creativity. Every year someone tries to convince me that creative is the key to great advertisements. While creativity is important, it seldom comes in the form of special effects or celebrating itself. The one exception this year is "Soundcheck" by Pepsi (simply because it is so well done). Lower down on the list are those commercials that the authors smugly claim are clever like GoDaddy.

5. Youthful Promise. Where nostalgia once attracted significant attention because Americans were longing for what they knew just a few years prior, smart advertisers replaced the recipe with the promise of youth. Some people will claim that "kids" made the commercials work, but there is something deeper at work here. Americans aren't necessarily growing up as much as they are growing out of some hard years.

All in all, what worked this year isn't all that different from what worked four years ago. The differences are present, but subtle. And, in fact, it is in this subtlety that you can find the real genius of advertising — making minute-to-minute changes in direction to keep pace with public sentiment.

At $4 million per commercial, you would think such in-depth understanding of the public would be mandatory. It's not. The vast majority of Super Bowl commercials this year were too concerned with social share-ability and safety to be truly effective. Of them all, Cheerios took the biggest risk.

Some might say Coca-Cola deserves such honors for singing America The Beautiful in Spanish, Tagalog and Hebrew. I disagree, only because Coca-Cola seems to be trying to create controversy with the English-only crowd whereas Cheerios was making a play for our hearts. There's a difference.

Great advertising is a tricky business. And while Americans weren't treated to the best Super Bowl commercials this year (or the best Super Bowl), there were several that showed hints of greatness — good enough that you might learn something about communication anyway. What do you think?
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