The cost of Super Bowl ads has increased steadily over the last few decades. In 1993, a 30-second spot cost $900,000. This year, a commercial of the same size is going for as much as $5 million. That’s just the price for running an already-made ad in a specific commercial cluster; i.e., it doesn’t include hiring actors, paying directors, or other productions costs.
Who in their right mind would pay $5 million-plus for 30 seconds of anything? Well, certain advertisers will, knowing that their message will be seen by one of the largest TV viewing audiences ever. It’s estimated that 111.9 million people watched Super Bowl 50 in the United States alone. What’s more, social media has extended the life of the commercials beyond the game itself thanks to the popularity of pre-releases of ads on sites such as superbowlcommercials.co and after-the-fact views on YouTube.
Still, not every organization that can afford a Super Bowl ad should buy one. Conventional wisdom suggests that a spot may be a good investment for a firm that’s targeting a nationwide, if not global, market for consumables such as fast food, soft drinks, or snacks. There also can be an advantage for such products in that they fit the context in which people see the ads: People often eat snack food during the Super Bowl, so they’re more likely to pay attention to and remember ads for tortilla chips, salsa, etc.
Who has no business advertising on the Super Bowl? Organizations that market to other businesses, i.e., B2B firms. Yes, the decision-makers for these products may be somewhere among 100 million-plus viewers, but even if they are, they probably aren’t thinking about a new sprocket supplier for their firm. Furthermore, B2B products are often more complex than products for end-consumers, which means B2B communication doesn’t lend itself to short television spots. Instead of advertising, a more effective and efficient way to reach a relatively small number of potential B2B buyers is personal selling.
However, a good target market fit alone will not make for an effective Super Bowl ad or other promotion. Advertising ultimately needs to move people through AIDA: attention, interest, desire, action. Here’s where so many Super Bowl ads miss the mark. For instance, their use of celebrity actors is attention-getting, and their ability to tell a compelling story in 30 seconds keeps our interest, but they don’t instill a desire to fulfill a specific need or move us to action (e.g., to go to the company’s website, purchase the product, or recommend it to others). In other words, the ads are entertaining, but not particularly effective.
A classic example of entertainment over efficacy was the “little blue pill” ad from a few Super Bowls ago. The ad captivated viewers, who watched a love-stricken older man drop his last testosterone enhancing tablet, only to see it bounce around an Italian village and end-up in the gas tank of a small red car. The problem with the ad was that many people who saw it couldn’t remember afterward what it was for; some thought it was an ad for Viagra. They had entirely missed or forgotten that it was a car ad for Fiat. Yes, the ad entertained, but it’s highly unlikely that people who couldn’t remember what the ad was for would have gone out to buy a Fiat.
Effective ads, especially ones for specific products, communicate a clear unique selling proposition (USP)--the special set of benefits that consumers enjoy in using them. Likewise, effective ads contain a compelling call-to-action, which can be tangible, like visiting a website or buying the product, or it can be more intangible, like adopting positive beliefs about the brand. Neither of these two critical components of AIDA (desire and action) can happen, however, if people don’t remember the product a given ad promoted.
Effectiveness isn’t enough, however, especially when considering mass communication that reaches one of the most demographically diverse television viewing audiences ever. For this reason, it’s very important that Super Bowl ads are also ethical—that they support societal values such as decency, honesty, respect, and stewardship.
Thankfully, the over-sexualized spots that GoDaddy ran for several years, which were especially demeaning to women, are largely a thing of the past. Still, there are always a few ads the minimize morality. Last year, Budweiser’s ad against drunk-driving had good intent, but Helen Mirren’s caustic rant set a bad example for children and others in a culture that’s battling bullying.
This year, a contender for most unethical ad is Squarespace’s spot featuring John Malkovich, who lets loose a profanity-laced tirade against another John Malkovich who took his domain name. Like Budweiser and Mirren, Squarespace and Malkovich set a very poor example in a world wanting of civility and restraint. Again, however, such morality-challenged ads are fortunately the exception rather than the rule.
So as you watch this year’s Super Bowl ads (before, during, or after the game), ask yourself if the commercials have just entertained, or if they’ve truly tapped into needs that will lead to action. It’s nice that some advertisers are willing to spend millions of dollars to make us tear-up or laugh, but such entertainment is an insufficient return on a very significant investment. In other words, it’s “Simple-Minded Marketing.”