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3 Reasons Super Bowl Ads Failed, And 3 That Worked

Most marketing blogs the day after the Super Bowl are sharing the same disappointment at the ads and how universally average they were. Meanwhile, some of the best campaigns of the Super Bowl season were efforts launched online or that had a significant online component, but the fact remains that many Super Bowl ads simply didn’t work this year. Not from a creative point of view, and likely not from a sales point of view either (though it’s obviously too early to know that). So, in honor of the Super Bowl winners and losers, here’s my list not just of the best and worst ads, but some lessons I think any marketer can learn from why the worst ones failed.

  1. Forgetting about the economy – This may not seem like a great reason to say that an ad failed, but the facts are that any brand who chose to pay the $2 million to $3 million price tag took a serious PR risk. Call it the “corporate jet phenomenon” – where people are more likely to believe that companies are wasting lots of money on stuff like corporate jets instead of doing things that actually relate to the bottom line, like trimming costs or creating jobs. The economy created a lot of pressure this year for any Super Bowl advertiser to justify why it would spend that much money on a 30 second spot. At least half the brands advertising this year failed that test.
  2. Lack of authenticity – Everything in the marketing and consumer world is pointing towards authenticity in marketing and in what people are beginning to expect from brands. So when you have John Turturro selling Heineken by telling you “this is not a beer” or some girl sitting at a cafe (without a drink) eating Cheetos … the authenticity is missing.  When we can’t believe the situations, and the creative isn’t good enough to “suspend disbelief” then the ad ends up unbelievable (and not in a good way).
  3. Being entertaining isn’t a strategy – As is the case every year with the Super Bowl, we see many ads that try too hard to be entertaining and forget about strategy. As a result, the ads make no sense and though the entertainment works on occasion, the brand message is easily forgotten. Most of the Coke spots fit this category (a fact even though the Coke Picnic ad was technically beautiful), and the SoBe Dancers crazy lizard ad from this year as well as last year is probably the best example of this, as well as a brand trying way too hard to stand out.

And now on to the three brand campaigns that I thought worked:

  1. Hyundai – Despite the fact that they are part of a battered industry, Hyundai came out big for the Super Bowl, sponsoring elements of the game as well as promoting their new Genesis. What made their campaign so good, though, was that they covered every question a car buyer might have. One ad focused on their assurance program where they will let you return the car if you lose your job. Another showed all the other big car companies tearing their hair out that Hyundai Genesis won the 2009 North American Car Of The Year award and making fun of how no one can say their name. Together their strategy produced the rare combination of a reason to buy and product information simultaneously.
  2. Hulu Hulu’s spot with Alec Baldwin talking about how the service works and joking about TV killing brain cells is my choice for the best ad of the Super Bowl. Firstly because the use of celebrity actually made sense (he’s the star of an NBC show 30Rock). Secondly because he humorously took on the perception that many might have of TV executives and the Hollywood complex being disconnected from the average American consumer, and thirdly because it was introducing a new service that represents a pretty significant great new service for most people who don’t live their lives on Twitter and might not have heard of it. Making all the TV spots available for viewing on Hulu after the game as a reason to drive people there – and offer an easy widget to embed on your blog (below) were also smart moves.
  3. Miller High Life – Miller followed their strategy from last year and avoided the Super Bowl directly, but indirectly used their “Miller Delivery Guy” to make fun of other advertisers and how much they were spending on ads by launching their “1 second ad.” This follows from their “common sense platform” and the general idea that their beer is the common sense choice, delivered by a guy who most people could relate to. To counter, Bud continued with their “buy our beer because we have cute All-American horses” campaign. Advantage? Miller.

Finally, a few honorable mentions and my pick for the “sleeper hit” of all the ads:

  1. NBC – Despite their technical problems during the Obama interview, NBC met expectations and used the Super Bowl to shamelessly plug their own shows from a Heroes integrated TV spot to featuring lots of NBC stars on the “red carpet” 5 hour pregame show. They will likely see a good bump in audience for their programming as a result.
  2. Intel* – Using an innovative 3D glasses campaign tie-in with the movie Monsters vs. Aliens worked well for Intel because of how overtly branded the glasses were, and the fun factor of 3D. This should continue into tonight’s all 3D episode of Chuck. *Intel is a client, however neither I nor Ogilvy worked on this particular campaign.
  3. Teleflora – And, my pick for the sleeper hit for ad effectiveness is Teleflora’s ad about how you should never send flowers in a box. No one will likely be talking about it today, except those that hated it, and it will not make any lists. But the next time you’re ordering flowers, you’ll remember the simple message and if not go with Teleflora, at least think twice about sending flowers in a box … which was their whole point.

15 thoughts on “3 Reasons Super Bowl Ads Failed, And 3 That Worked”

  1. Rohit, definitely hearing you about point 3 – humor is not strategy. For beer companies, that’s about all they have, though.

    I still think the Super Bowl ad buy is viable. Where else are you going to find a venue with 100M+ viewers eagerly waiting to see your commercial (and ready to talk about it ad nauseum in the social media ether)? Overall, the $3mil pricetag didn’t bother me – except where advertisers ran stale creative. If you’re going to make a buy that big, you better bring something new.

    Authenticity is a relative thing as perspectives go. John T.’s Heiny ad was trite, but I found the Cheetohs spot pretty amusing. Splitting hairs here, but I know I’ve seen plenty of cafe squatters taking up air and space for hours without any product in front of them.

  2. The party I was at agreed, mostly. We loled at Teleflora and the Baldwin commercial. the Genesis North American car of the year commercial seemed disjointed — execs yelling in lots of foreign languages about the North American car of the year?

    Not a single one of us found the 3D glasses in any store, despite several people making trips specifically to look for them and get a handful for our party. I’d call that a pretty big fail on someone’s part, unless the DFW market just doesn’t matter. And we didn’t see the 1-second commercial.

  3. Another reason for the less-than-newsworthy ads is that some of the spots have already been seen online and have been criticized up and down already in public. This makes the Super Bowl look like an overpriced market targeting people who don’t pay attention to other media.

  4. to the first point of failure, I understand many of these folks bought their ad slots prior to September’s economic downfall, and I’m guessing many of the ads were already into production by then, so most of that money was spent before the average American would consider it a “waste”. perhaps other commenters can confirm?

  5. I agree with you about both Teleflora & Hyundai Assurance – I am very curious how many folks it moves, especially the ones that are sitting on the fence.

    My wife & I were debating the very first issue you describe – that marketers seem to have lost their touch with reality – why is this? what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem just sporadic ..

  6. I have a lot of trouble with point #1 about “forgetting the economy.”

    Rohit, you say that advertisers failed to justify spending $2 to $3 million for an ad, yet you don’t explain what that criteria is.

    Companies still have to market products to stay in business and make connections and relationships. The average viewer who is not in the industry is not counting how much money an ad costs. They want to be entertained and moved.

    The “corporate jet phenomenon” is very much about CEO’s and executives taking corporate money and wasting it on over the top luxury travel to meetings and vacations. Super Bowl ads are pure marketing, and one thing that business professors will tell you is even in the worst of times, you want to continue marketing.

    Strange how no media coverage addressed film ads that were shown. They were a blur of very fast cut explosions and stunts crammed into 30 seconds, and none of them stood out or took their time to connect.

  7. Great post. I also really liked the CareerBuilder ad – it got everyone’s attention and didn’t look anything like any of the other ads last night.

    I think one of the other blunders was the 1st spot – I don’t think you can ask people to go to your website during the SuperBowl when most people are at bars or house parties. It’s not like a typical night when you’re sitting with your laptop in front of the TV.

  8. The Miller High Life 1 second ads and presence didn’t impact me at all – I completely missed that one, as did everyone at my party. We discussed the Teleflora and Hyundai ads – the one that mocked the other car companies was funny & impactful.

    I was a bit disappointed by the Monsters vs. Aliens ad – the 3-D components were not that exciting, especially for a movie that’s not coming out for a few months.

  9. Maybe I’m missing it, but are any of the big beer brands engaged meaningfully in Social Media? Are any of them engaging consumers in their product, production methods, utilizing brewmasters, etc.?

    As far as spending your $3 million more effectively, here’s my proposal to create 21,900 thirty second spots for the price of 1 Super Bowl ad:

  10. @Rohit – I really like the way you took something very relevant that everyone is buzzing about and immediately broke it down from a marketing lens.

    With respect to most of your points, I whole-heartily agree, and I especially liked the Hulu ad and the Miller light 1-second ad campaign, and definitely think they will serve both brands well.

    I think where I disagree a little bit is the notion that being entertaining isn’t a strategy. I will admit that being entertaining for the sake of it (with no additional strategy – and that may have been the point you were making) is pointless.

    Other than generating some initial laughs, people will forget the message in a few days (which is why I like how you highlighted the potential long-term effectiveness of the Teleflora ad). That said, brands that utilize entertaining in conjunction with strategy will turn up again and again in various polls, and be featured again this time next year prior to the next super bowl in funniest ad compilations. Because of this, there staying power is significantly longer, and they’ll remain front of mind at the point of purchase.

    Thanks again for taking a unique angle and turning your marketing expertise on the ads.


  11. I think you points about why the worst ads failed is correct, but your picks for the best ads seemed off. You have to think about what are the consumers going to like. Your Miller pick was ok, but looking at their online component many of their videos don’t have more than 200,000 views. I think Miller did a good job breaking down their consumer but where is the hook?

    You completely missed what I thought was the funniest commercial of them all. The Doritos commercial at the beginning for free Doritos at work. It had everyone in my mixed company super bowl party laughing hysterically. It addressed economic suffering, it carried the brand throughout and it was entertaining.

  12. Hi all,
    Thanks for the great comments, sorry I couldn’t get back to the post earlier to respond to some of them …

    @M.M. McDermott – Fair point about the Super Bowl buy still being viable for some brands. The problem is that most of the brands who are there are predictable and not in that category.

    @dave – I’ve heard that from a few people about not being able to find the glasses. That’s the tough thing about a promo like that when distribution doesn’t meet the promise.

    @lisa – I was thinking about that too, and that some brands would have made the decision to make the buy months ago … but the economy was still bad back then, and we all know there is always a way to back out.

    @drew – The criteria, in my opinion, for a wise Super Bowl ad spend is first of all if your product is targeted to a mass audience, if you have an actionable message, if your product is relatively unfamiliar, and you could probably attach a few other criteria. Of course, that part is subjective … I think your broader issue of needing to market in a downturn is a good one. But if I’m out of a job, I don’t need to buy a Ferrari. The problem with the Super Bowl is that it is the most excessive marketing you can do, and for some brands that’s just not a wise choice right now. I do think it can work, as I noted in my post – but it’s not for everyone.

    @rick – Great question on follow through that could be applied to any brand. This is a broader question than just one of the Super Bowl, but you’re right to raise it here and thanks for your thoughts.

    @Ryan – I agree, being entertaining to some end does work. But focusing purely on entertainment only works if you are trying to make entertainment (which by the way people are paying to watch). If you’re selling a product, the entertainment needs to support that, and there I think we agree.

    @Tadina – I thought someone would raise that spot as an omission, and you’re right – I loved it as well. What I really liked about it was that Doritos seems to be the only one that didn’t forget all about the UGC craziness from last year and stuck with it this year. As a result they had one of the few user submitted winners.

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Rohit is the author of 8 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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