Lessons From the Super Bowl

Super Bowl 2014 set a record for the most-watched television event in U.S. history, drawing 111.5 million viewers. But many of those viewers are in it for the advertising. Why are consumers consumed by Super Bowl commercials? Ad execs share what they teach us about smart marketing strategies you can use year-round.

In a TiVo world, one of the few television shows which millions of Americans watch live (no fast-forwarding) is the Super Bowl. Even non-sports addicts tune in specifically to watch the commercials – a rare event in our media saturated times. So what can small businesses learn from these well-watched, million-dollar advertisements? Here five ad pros tell what works today to sell products and boost brands.


Selling your product sounds like Advertising 101 but many million-dollar advertisers fail to do just that. Some of the funniest ads, even ones which go viral, lack evidence that they increase sales. One ad veteran says people often regale him with detailed descriptions of ads they loved – only to forget what product it was for.

“The ads that we remember the best and associate with products the best are the ones that are all about the product,” says Gary Getto, president of Advertising Benchmark Index (ABX), a company which measures how well ads perform. The 2012 Super Bowl “Sling Baby” ad featuring a baby snatching a bag of Doritos back from his nasty big brother made the product central to the ad, and therefore, it was unforgettable.

Getto says advertisers must remember the reason for advertising – to generate sales. He makes a distinction between popular ads and those which motivate consumers to buy. For example, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” ad about the friendship between a Clydesdale and a Labrador generated more than 1.3 million shares on social media, above any other Super Bowl ads this year. “It was in a class by itself in terms of motivating people to say, ‘Hey look at this!’ But I’m not sure that it sold another can of beer,” says Getto, who adds the commercial was good for Budweiser’s reputation because it generated positive feelings.

Getto, a former ASI distributor, recommends creating ads based on the fundamentals of your brand and the actions you want potential customers to take after seeing the ad. Communicate that ad specialties are a reminder of a customer’s brand and continue to reinforce their message. “You sense that people who spend $4 million on a Super Bowl ad would get it right, but there were an awful lot of ads for which you didn’t know what they were communicating,” he says.


Getto says another lesson from the Super Bowl is that it’s not just about the 30 seconds. Successful Super Bowl advertisers build up to the big game by teasing ads on YouTube and using social media, turning one ad into a sales campaign. That’s an effective approach for businesses with smaller pockets too. Build an e-mail prospect list, use online advertising and drive prospects to your website. Create inexpensive videos to reach the sector you want to target by e-mailing links and posting the videos on your site.

“Encouragingly we find that online videos are every bit as effective as broadcast television,” says Getto. He cautions against using local celebrities in videos to keep the spotlight on your company, but he adds half-jokingly, “Babies and pets are always successful.”


Message-based advertising is old-school; today the goal is content advertising. For content-driven campaigns to work, they must be interesting enough for people to share.
“Content is that stuff you see online that your friends send you saying, ‘Have you seen this? It’s so cool!’” says Luke Sullivan, author of Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads. “Content is advertising-like material that may move a brand forward but it is interesting in and of itself.”

Sullivan thinks Americans lost trust in authority figures years ago, so message-based advertising is no longer believable. Instead, companies who “do cool things” in entertaining ways get their voices heard in a crowded marketplace.

This year, one company got noticed by being different. Newcastle Brown Ale produced fake Super Bowl ads – a series of Web videos talking about how they couldn’t afford true Super Bowl ads. Sullivan calls it “really smart” to gain attention by riding on the Super Bowl wave without paying Super Bowl prices.

Another company who turned advertising “from an interruption into a destination” is Coca-Cola. It wasn’t a Super Bowl ad – instead Coca-Cola created a “moment of happiness” with its Small World Machines project by providing a live communications portal in India and Pakistan, two nations historically at odds. Participants engaged with each other through the machines by tracing peace signs, laughing and sharing a Coke. People shared the videos because they showed in a clever way how barriers can be broken. Sullivan says the award-winning campaign worked because it was “delightful.”

There are only a few basic ways to generate emotion and interest. “You can scare somebody, you can pluck their heart strings or you can tickle their funny bone. There aren’t many new flavors in terms of human responses to information,” says Sullivan. Best practices remain the same. The fewer things you say, the better. Keep it simple, and be interesting with one elegant headline, one beautiful visual or well-done humor.


Everyone has an opinion on the best Super Bowl ads. But which ones truly touch the audience? Researchers at Temple University and Boston-based Innerscope Research have been measuring the physiological characteristics of Super Bowl ad watchers for the last seven years to learn what they respond to most. They measure core signs – heart rate, skin sweat, respiration and motion – then combine those numbers into a measure of emotional engagement. This year, the team also put ad watchers in an MRI scanner to track brain activity.

“What we see over and over again is that well-told stories that take people on an emotional journey with relatable characters, and that show product benefits as well as integrate the brand into the story, do the best,” says Carl Marci, Innerscope’s co-founder and a neuropsychiatrist.

Marci points out the tender Cheerios ad where the father in an interracial couple tells his daughter to expect a newborn only to have her lobby for a new puppy, tells a full story in 30 seconds. “There has been a shift away from boobs and beer,” he says. “Where the Super Bowl has historically been a platform for cheap jokes and scantily clad women, it’s really evolved to be much more sophisticated.”

Another ad which supports Marci’s findings was the 2014 Chevrolet ad where, without dialog, a husband and wife drive home from the hospital apparently after successful cancer treatment. “That’s a pretty heavy theme for the Super Bowl,” he says. “So I think as we get more viewers and a more diverse viewer, the ad content has shifted but principles remain the same.”

Storylines reflect the times. For example, there were some frivolous themes in the 2008 Super Bowl prior to the economic crash. Afterwards, emotionally engaging ads included and In following years, nostalgic themes reminding people of better times resonated with ad watchers. In 2014, ads with relationship themes scored well.

“This year we saw a little more optimism and I think a lot of that reflects what’s going on with our economy,” says Marci. His research shows that the context in which ads appear makes a big impact. At the Super Bowl, viewers are anticipating great ads and are often watching in a highly competitive environment. “There’s all this hype, so we’re more geared up for that than an average night watching a rerun on cable,” he adds. “You’ve got to take them on an emotional journey and end with an emotional payoff. That’s all key.”


Despite all the millions and hoopla, it comes down to one simple concept – heart.

Michael Weigold, co-author of the textbook M Advertising and a professor of advertising at University of Florida, says there’s always controversy among advertising experts about the best way to spend their money during the Super Bowl. While it’s easy to formulate arguments both ways, in 2014 it came down to the heart of the matter. “People were not trying to be edgy so much as they were trying to come back to a kind of inclusiveness, that we’re all in this together,” he says.

The 2014 Super Bowl ads went for a soft-sell, emotional appeal to capture the hearts of distracted viewers. Weigold says they’re taking advantage of outstanding production techniques to make viewers feel something. That approach can be an advantage for members of the ad specialty industry.

“One of the really great things about specialty advertising is the idea of a gift which itself is a very emotional thing – a gift to people that matters to the business or the advertiser,” says Weigold. Businesses that know their customers, their communities and the current events that are important to them are in a better position to reach out with ad specialties and other marketing media.

Recently, he notes, a small shoe store used social media to communicate they had weatherproof shoes after a big storm hit, showing they cared about their customers. That kind of responsiveness is a big plus. These days, businesses have to be especially creative about ways to stay in touch. “If businesses have a Web presence and keep their customers and prospects informed about what’s going on,” says Weigold, “obviously integrating social media with ad specialty products is just a smart move.”