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Is a Super Bowl Ad Really Worth the Cost?

What can $2.6 million really buy you? Plus our advertising expert's picks for smartest and dumbest Super Bowl ad--from a business perspective.

One Super Bowl ad runs $2.6 million. Is it a good investment? What else might an advertiser do with that kind of cash? Do the people's favorite ads even get the best results?

Super Bowl ads have, for years, been little more than a beauty contest for advertising agencies. When a company selects an agency's ad to represent it during the Super Bowl, it's sort of like choosing a girl to represent a state in the Miss America pageant. Super Bowl ads are an iconic, cultural phenomenon that makes very little sense; essentially, they're the advertising equivalent of bathing-suit-clad girls with big eyes and high heels talking about their dreams of world peace.

Over a year, the price of one Super Bowl ad could provide your company exposure to 50 percent of the population of Southern California. It would buy you enough radio repetition for the average listener to hear your ad four times a week, 52 weeks a year throughout Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County and the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino). Altogether, $2.6 million could buy you several thousand ads, which would reach a total of nearly 15 million people.

Paying $2.6 million for an ad to air during the Super Bowl might possibly be the dumbest thing you could do with $2.6 million. Or the smartest. It all depends on what you communicate in the ad.

The Dumbest Super Bowl Ad of 2007: FedEx Ground
Although this was one of the more clever and entertaining ads this season, it'll also prove to be counterproductive. Remember the ad? A bunch of people are sitting in a conference room .

MANAGER: FedEx saved us with their overnight service, so we've added FedEx Ground for everyday shipping.

JOEL: Ground? That doesn't sound fast.

RELAXED GUY LEISURELY HOLDING COFFEE: Actually, Joel, FedEx Ground is faster than you think.

MANAGER: We can't judge things by their name. Don't you agree, Harry?

EXTREMELY HAIRY GUY: Absolutely.

MANAGER: Eileen?

GIRL LEANING HARD ON HARRY: Of course.

MANAGER: Joy?

JOY: (Gives an effervescent giggle with a beaming smile)

MANAGER: Bob?

BOB: (Bobs his head up and down in an extreme fashion)

GUY WITH HUGE DOUBLE CHIN: You see, Joel, we all agree that FedEx Ground is fast, despite the name "Ground."

MANAGER: Well said, Mr. Turkeyneck.

The ad ends with the FedEx logo revolving quickly to reveal four variations--FedEx Ground, FedEx Express, FedEx Kinko's and FedEx Freight--while an off-camera announcer says, "FedEx Ground. Fast. Reliable. And for less than you think."

Here are the major problems with the ad:

  1. The ad clearly illustrates that Joel was right; you can judge things by their name.
  2. The people arguing that FedEx Ground is fast "despite the name" appear bizarre and ridiculous. Joel is the only normal person in the room. We identify with Joel, not with the others.
  3. "For less than you think" is ambiguous ad-speak. Specifics are always more powerful than generalities. "For as little as $2 a package" is specific. And far more impressive.
  4. The ending of the ad is soft and unfocused. We're not yet convinced that FedEx Ground is a worthy alternative to UPS, and it seems that FedEx isn't completely convinced either. In the end, the company wants to be sure that we realize there are at least three other FedEx options: FedEx Express, FedEx Kinkos and FedEx Freight.

The Smartest Super Bowl Ad of 2007: Two Lions for Taco Bell
Remember the ad? A pair of lions are looking at a group of campers in the distance eating lunch while on safari. The lions smell the new steak taquito from Taco Bell. The rest of the ad is one lion trying to teach the other how to pronounce "carne asada," the type of steak used in the taquito.

Here's what makes the ad work:

  1. A lion is king of the jungle; its opinion is respected.
  2. Lions are meat-eaters, absolute carnivores.
  3. Viewers learn how to pronounce a strangely spelled word--carne asada--thereby increasing their comfort level when ordering the item at Taco Bell.
  4. The ad ends with a mouthwatering close-up of freshly grilled carne asada steak as it's being sliced. You definitely want to taste it.
  5. The ad is focused on one thing: the carne asada steak taquito. Taco Bell's agency had the wisdom not to include any images or descriptions of other Taco Bell products.

TV is an impact medium. But there will be no impact if the viewer isn't paying attention or if your ad's message is unfocused. The Super Bowl is the one event each year that guarantees viewers will be paying attention. We tune in as much for the ads as for the game.

Are your ads entertaining but counterproductive, like the FedEx ad? Or are they entertaining, focused and convincing like the Taco Bell ad?

Follow the lead of FedEx Ground if your goal is to entertain America. But if you want to sell product, I suggest you study Taco Bell's script.

Roy William's is the founder and president of international ad agency Wizard of Ads. Roy is also the author of numerous books on improving your advertising efforts, including The Wizard of Ads and Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads.

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