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Is a Super Bowl Ad the Equivalent of Lighting Money on Fire?

How should brands measure the impact of their Super Bowl ads? Here are this year's best-performing Super Bowl ads and what you can learn from them.

Is a Super Bowl Ad Is the Equivalent of Lighting Money on Fire

Three years ago, Tim Sullivan and Ray Fisman claimed in The Harvard Business Review that “a Super Bowl ad is the equivalent of lighting money on fire.”

Were they right?

Well, it depends on how you measure your results.

Digital marketers know that there are a ton of metrics out there. And they understand why you should use a different set of metrics as KPIs for a brand campaign than you would for a performance campaign.

(As Albert Einstein explained, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”)

So, what can we learn by analyzing this year’s relatively “bland” Super Bowl ads?

Hey, that’s not just my opinion.

Senior editor Jeanine Poggi wrote in Ad Age:

“Once again, this year failed to produce very many commercial standouts. The desire to not provoke controversy and steer clear of anything divisive, resulted in bland ads that utilized recycled material and quite literally borrowed from each other.”

It’s hard to imagine that any brand wrote a creative brief that told their outside agency or in-house team to produce a “bland” ad.

So, what were this year’s group of Super Bowl advertisers trying to accomplish?

Well, it appears that far too many of them were using vanity metrics to justify spending $5.6 million on a 30-second TV spot during a “Big Game” that reached less than 100 million people.

Now, it won’t help our cause to call these brands “stupid” for using the wrong metrics to “judge a fish.”

But, maybe it’s time to (politely) tell the vast majority of this year’s Super Bowl advertisers how they can lift brand awareness, consideration, favorability, and purchase intent by redeploying $5.6 million to $41 million from their TV advertising budgets to their digital advertising budgets next year.

The Super Bowl Is ‘the Last Hurrah’ for the ‘Mad Men’ Era

One of the reasons why so many brands continue to over-invest in creating a TV commercial that under-performs during the Super Bowl is the myth that mass marketing gives you the best bang for your buck.

It doesn’t.

Mass marketing was a classic strategy back in the 1960s during the “Mad Men” era when it was a popular practice for a brand to ignore market segment differences and appeal the whole market with one message.

But, the mass marketing era ended 40 years ago with the advent of cable TV. And these days, ignoring market segment differences doesn’t give you the best bang for your buck.

You could say that Super Bowl ads are “The Last Hurrah” for the “Mad Men” era.

The next time the highest paid people in the office (HiPPOs) get nostalgic about their favorite commercials from the Big Game, digital marketers need to intervene, or they will end up leaving money on the table.

How much money?

Kantar Media estimates that in-game ad expenditures for Super Bowl 2020 totaled $435 million.

This is the largest amount spent in history, eclipsing even the $390 million shelled out during Super Bowl 2017, which went into overtime.

Advertisers bought a total of 51 minutes, 15 seconds of national commercial time on the NFL and Fox-owned networks.

In fact, Kantar Media reports that ads accounted for 24% of total broadcast time.

Excluding the promotional messages aired by Fox, 52 different advertisers ran a total of 62 in-game spots during Super Bowl LIV.

Anheuser Busch InBev was the top advertiser, spending an estimated $41 million for a total of four ads, each 60 seconds long, during the Big Game.

PepsiCo was the runner up at $31 million, followed by Procter & Gamble at $30 million, and Amazon at $26 million.

Auto manufacturers were the leading category of advertisers during the game, accounting for an estimated $77 million of spending and 7 minutes and 30 seconds of commercial time.

Technology was the second-largest category with $51 million and 5 minutes of messages.

Food finished in third place at $46 million and 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

There were 7 first-time advertisers during this year’s Super Bowl, which is the same number as last year.

The 2020 rookie roster included Facebook, Walmart, Michael Bloomberg, and Donald Trump, who are already well known, as well as Little Caesars, Sabra, and Quibi, which viewed advertising during the Big Game as a way to increase their brand awareness.

According to Neilson, 99.9 million viewers watched the Kansas City Chief beat the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 31-20.

And, I admit that I was briefly one of those 99.9 million viewers.

I started to watch the Big Game along with my oldest son and his two kids until my oldest grandchild declared, “This is boring.”

So, who got the biggest bang for their buck?

According to the USA Today Ad Meter, Here Are the Top 5 Super Bowl LIV Ads

If you use the USA Today Ad Meter to measure success, then this year’s top 5 Super Bowl ads were:

1. Jeep | ‘Groundhog Day’ | Bill Murray | 02.02.2020

What’s significant about this year’s Ad Meter winner, is Jeep’s score (7.01 out of 10), which was the second-lowest score for an Ad Meter winner since the rankings were established in 1989.

As the video’s description says:

“It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ all over again as Jeep brand debuts a Big Game spot starring Bill Murray (in his first-ever national television commercial). But this time reliving the same day over and over again is always a new adventure when you’re driving the 2020 Jeep Gladiator. Jeep. There’s only one.”

2. Smaht Pahk | 2020 Hyundai Sonata | Hyundai

This video’s description says:

“It’s not a ghost car, it’s just wicked smart. Sorry, we meant smaht. Watch this year’s big game commercial and see how Chris Evans, John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch, and David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz react to one of the Sonata’s newest and smartest features: Remote Smart Parking Assist. All while paying homage to their beloved Boston.”

3. Loretta | Google Super Bowl Commercial 2020

What’s this ad about? According to the video’s description:

“A man reminisces about the love of his life with a little help from Google.” Oh, and if you “see something in this story you want to try for yourself,” there “are a few tips (in the description) to get you started.” Of course, “First you’ll need the Google Assistant.”


4. Doritos | The Cool Ranch feat. Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott

OK, what’s this ad selling? Based on the video’s description:

“The ranch just got cooler. Watch Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott reach for the sky and drop it down low in a winner-takes-all western showdown the world has never seen before.” This is followed by a couple of hashtags – #Doritos #CoolRanchDance – and viewers are asked to “Download for iOS and get in on the #CoolRanchDance action.”

5. Jason Momoa Super Bowl Commercial 2020 | Rocket Mortgage

And, what does this video’s description want you to do?

“Watch Jason Momoa get super comfortable at home in our 2020 Super Bowl commercial. Behind the muscles and hair is just a guy trying to relax at home – the one place he can truly be himself.” Um, okay. That’s followed by this message: “With Rocket Mortgage, you’ll get award-winning customer service and a home buying experience centered around you, so you can be as comfortable financing your home as you are living in it.”

Oh, it’s a commercial.

But wait, there’s more!

In an attempt to send additional advertisers home with a consolidation prize, this year’s USA Today Ad Meter teamed up with YouTube AdBlitz to hand out five new honors: Most viewed ad in the Comedy, Dramatic, Inspirational, Action-Packed, and Sentimental categories.

The most-viewed ad in the Comedy category was: “Amazon Super Bowl Commercial 2020 – #BeforeAlexa.” The video’s description asks:

“What did we do #BeforeAlexa? Watch now and vote for your favorite ad on Ad Meter!”

The most-viewed ad in the Dramatic category was: “Heinz – Find The Goodness – Four at Once.”

As the video’s description says:

“When you find the goodness, any moment can be made better. So on Sunday 2.2.20, Heinz is bringing so much goodness in so little commercial time by showing four situations…at once. #FindTheGoodness.”

The most viewed ad in the Inspirational category was: “Microsoft Super Bowl 2020 Commercial: Be The One / Katie Sowers.”

According to the video’s description:

“Microsoft is committed to empowering the next generation of game-changers, like Katie Sowers. As an Offensive Assistant Coach for the San Francisco 49ers, she’s made history as the first woman to ever coach in the Super Bowl. When you have a dream, bring it to the Surface.”

The most-viewed ad in the Action-Packed category was: “F9 – Official Trailer [HD].” The video’s description says, “F9. In Theaters May 22.”

Finally, the most-viewed ad in the Sentimental category was: “Loretta | Google Super Bowl Commercial 2020.”

Since it also ranked #3 in the Ad Meter rankings, I won’t say more about it here.

But, do you really think that any of these nine advertisers can cost-justify paying more than $5.6 million dollars to produce these Super Bowl ads just to generate some buzz around water coolers the very next day?

Hey, that’s all that Ad Meter rankings really measure.

Now, I admit that these vanity metrics might make the CEOs of the five to nine companies listed above happy for a day or two.

But, the CMOs who approved these Big Game ads will be facing “involuntary entrepreneurship” if their commercials don’t impact the KPIs that really matter later this quarter.

And these nine CMOs are the few, the happy few, who at least have a shot at keeping their jobs.

What do you think will happen to the HiPPOs at the 43 other advertisers who ran a total of 53 other in-game spots during Super Bowl LIV that didn’t rank as well in the USA Today Ad Meter or YouTube AdBlitz results?

  • Would you want to be in the shoes of the decision-makers at Anheuser Busch InBev, PepsiCo, or Procter & Gamble, who didn’t place a Super Bowl ad in this year’s top 5?
  • Would you want to trade places with the VPs of marketing at one of the five automakers – Audi, GMC, Kia, Porsche, and Toyota – which didn’t win even a consolation prize?
  • And would you want to be a member of the advertising team at any of the five lowest-rated Super Bowl LIV ads, according to Ad Meter: Squarespace (#58), Quibi (#59), Michael Bloomberg (#60), Pop-Tarts (#61), and Donald Trump (#62)?

This is why as many as 82.7% of this year’s Super Bowl advertisers need a better set of metrics as KPIs – even if they were running a brand campaign.

How Should Brands Measure the Impact of Their Super Bowl Ads?

Fortunately, Unruly, which was recently acquired by Tremor International Ltd, offers a better set of metrics to use as KPIs for a brand campaign.

Using their emotional testing and targeting tool, UnrulyEQ, they tested 44 of the 62 ads from this year’s Super Bowl, measuring the emotional intensity of viewers’ reactions as well as valuable business metrics, including brand favorability and purchase intent.

They also gave each ad an overall ranking based on these metrics.

Loretta | Google Super Bowl Commercial 2020” was #1 in Unruly’s rankings. It had an EQ score of 6.5 out of 10, with 49% of viewers showing an intense emotional response to the content. The ad also had a significant impact on its brand metrics, with 49% of all viewers saying they would recommend the brand favorably, and 46% saying they would consider purchasing the Google Assistant.

Cheetos Super Bowl Commercial 2020 MC Hammer Can’t Touch This” ranked #2. Its EQ score was 6.1, with scores of 38% for emotional intensity, 42% for brand favorability, and 56% for purchase intent.

Love Takes Action | :60 Commercial | New York Life Insurance” ranked #3. Its EQ score was 6.0, with scores of 47% for emotional intensity, 46% for brand favorability, and 41% for purchase intent.

Doritos | The Cool Ranch feat. Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott” ranked #4. Its EQ score was 5.9, with scores of 39% for emotional intensity, 37% for brand favorability, and 55% for purchase intent.

Lucky Dog: 2020 WeatherTech Super Bowl Commercial” ranked #5. Its EQ score was 5.8, with scores of 42% for emotional intensity, 48% for brand favorability, and 36% for purchase intent.

Microsoft Super Bowl 2020 Commercial: Be The One / Katie Sowers” ranked #6. Its EQ score was 5.7, with scores of 47% for emotional intensity, 40% for brand favorability, and 39% for purchase intent.

Jeep | ‘Groundhog Day’ | Bill Murray | 02.02.2020” ranked #7. Its EQ score was 5.5, with scores of 44% for emotional intensity, 41% for brand favorability, and 34% for purchase intent.

T-Mobile Super Bowl Commercial 2020 Anthony Anderson Mama Tests 5G” ranked #8. Its EQ score was 5.5, with scores of 39% for emotional intensity, 46% for brand favorability, and 35% for purchase intent.

#SnickersFixtheWorld – Full Version” ranked #9. Its EQ score was 5.5, with scores of 34% for emotional intensity, 34% for brand favorability, and 51% for purchase intent.

And “Smaht Pahk | 2020 Hyundai Sonata | Hyundai” ranked #10. Its EQ score was 5.5, with scores of 32% for emotional intensity, 48% for brand favorability, and 39% for purchase intent.

Only YOU Can Prevent Advertisers from Lighting Money on Fire

It’s worth noting that only 14 of the 44 Big Game ads that Unruly tested had an EQ score higher than 5.0, which is the U.S. norm.

So, how do we prevent two-thirds of these advertisers from lighting their money on fire again next year?

Now, you know your office politics better than I do.

But, let me draw up three plays that you or your HiPPO can add to your organization’s playbook for brand campaigns before the next football season kicks off.

Screen Pass

An analysis of this year’s Big Game ads by Vidsy found that only 23% had made mobile-optimized versions of their ad before sharing it online.

This means that more than three-quarters of advertisers simply posted their horizontal TV content across social media, a technique that is known to significantly underperform versus content that is created specifically for a digital platform.

So, throw this screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to the highest-paid person in your office and, who knows, you might get an extra boost in your digital marketing budget next year to promote and optimize your vertical video versions of their horizontal TV commercial – just as Secret Deodorant did on their own YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram accounts as well as in a paid partnership with the Ellen DeGeneres Facebook account.

Option Play

Piplsay polled 61,745 Americans in January 2020 and found 60% planned to watch the Super Bowl this year.

By comparison, the Pew Research Center reported in December 2019 that 73% of U.S. adults use YouTube.

And among those who are between the ages of 18 to 24, 90% use YouTube.

The only other social media platform that approaches YouTube in terms of its reach is Facebook, which is used by 69% of U.S. adults.

This means your brand can reach more than 100 million people on social video platforms during any season of the year.

And both YouTube and Facebook offer big advertisers brand lift studies, so you can find out within days how your video ads impacted the metrics that matter, including lifts in:

  • Brand awareness.
  • Consideration.
  • Favorability.
  • Purchase intent.

Suggesting this play will give your HiPPO the “option” of running Super Bowl-sized campaigns around other tent-pole events or creating one of your own for a new product launch.

For example, McDonald’s didn’t advertise in this year’s Big Game.

Instead, the brand leaned into authentic, clever messaging from celebrities and YouTube influencers to drive in-store traffic and sales around the new Quarter Pounder.

Razzle Dazzle

Social video platforms are constantly working on better ways to help you achieve your marketing goals – whether you want to build awareness for a brand, shift perceptions, or drive a specific action.

For example, I wrote a story in Search Engine Journal last September entitled, “YouTube Introduces Video Reach Campaigns for Brand Marketers.”

The story explained that video reach campaigns offer advertisers:

“…a simpler, more efficient way to achieve their brand awareness goals on YouTube. Rather than managing separate campaigns for 6-second bumper ads, skippable in-stream ads, and non-skippable in-stream ads, now you can upload multiple video creatives into a single campaign. From there, Google’s machine learning will automatically serve the most efficient combination of these formats to help you reach your audience at scale.”

Early adopters like Ford saw strong results using video reach campaigns.

In its alpha tests, the automaker lowered their campaign cost over 20% compared to their previous benchmarks, while maintaining effectiveness.

This kind of Razzle Dazzle play can help you use video to connect with consumers more efficiently and effectively than running a Super Bowl ad. And it’s worth noting that Ford didn’t advertise in this year’s Big Game.

So, let me conclude by circling back to the question I asked at the beginning of this article:

Were Sullivan and Fisman right when they claimed that a Super Bowl ad is the equivalent of lighting money on fire?

Well, if you use Ad Meter’s metrics, then they were right for 85.5% of the 62 advertisers.

If you use Unruly’s metrics, then they were right for 68.2% of the 44 advertisers tested.

And, if you use Vidsy’s analysis, then they were right for 77% of advertisers. So, they were mostly right.

But, what do you think? Is a Super Bowl ad the equivalent of lighting money on fire?

More Resources:

VIP CONTRIBUTOR Greg Jarboe President and co-founder at SEO-PR

Greg Jarboe is president of SEO-PR, which he co-founded with Jamie O’Donnell in 2003. Their digital marketing agency has won ...

Is a Super Bowl Ad the Equivalent of Lighting Money on Fire?

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