Last weekend's Super Bowl was as much an occasion for marketers as it was for sports fans: While the football heavy-weights duked it out for the coveted Lombardi trophy, big brands and challengers alike went head-to-head in those widely watched primetime ad breaks.
The huge, passionate and engaged audience the Super Bowl atttacts is a prize worth fighting for, and it’s no surprise that the accompanying price tags for commercial slots continue to climb each year. For this year’s event, 30 seconds of airtime was on offer for a reported $5 million -- so those advertisers that did take the opportunity were likely aiming to make every second count.
Unlike the on-field action at the game, however, the score line for ad effectiveness can be harder to judge.
Share of voice, or share of thought?
Given the size of these investments, it’s no surprise that Super Bowl campaigns are usually designed to score an elusive viral hit, to make those ad budgets go further. But some of the most commonly used methods to make that hit can come at the expense of the brand itself.
Previous Super Bowl success stories typically relied on big emotional moments or comedy to encourage audiences to engage with the ad beyond that one 30-second spot. And that sounds like a good strategy.
But, in practice, brand messaging can be pushed out of the picture as our brains follow the story, the jokes or the emotional rollercoaster and completely miss the brand messages, particularly if they appear at the end.
The upshot of this is typically a very expensive piece of entertainment content which fails to provide much benefit for the company itself. Here are some examples:
Budweiser and the lost brand
We found this effect with Budweiser’s 2015 ad, Lost Dog, which introduced the world to the brand’s famous puppy mascot and melted hearts around the world.
While it was hailed as the ad of the game, and generated a lot of Twitter activity, the brain response measurements we conducted (see chart below) showed that viewers didn’t strongly encode the brand itself into their memories.
Memory encoding is a crucial means of measuring ad effectiveness. After all, if a brand isn’t stored in memory, there’s no way it can become a part of a future purchase decision. The following graphic illustrates the peaks and troughs of audience memory-encoding when subjects viewed the Budweiser ad.
Graphic: courtesy of Neuro-Insight
The best way for advertisers to navigate this dilemma is to integrate their brand within the advertising itself, rather than solely as the tagline or logo at the end.
This year’s offering saw Anheuser-Busch do a better job than Budweiser by telling its story via an imagined scenario in which founder Adolphus Busch shares a beer with his future co-founder Eberhard Anheuser. The ad presented a stronger link than Budweiser did, but one still perhaps not quite as explicit as it could be.
However, Budweiser ads have not always lacked the link they need. The brand balanced a viral hit with strong brand messaging very well in the past; witness its famous Budweiser Frogs ad, which might be one of the best examples of all time.
Maybe the frogs were a little less cute than this year's puppy, but given their integral role in the ad, they were likely far more effective.
Steering clear of the "uncanny valley"
Some of the most-talked-about ads of the Super Bowl this year drew on CGI tech to bring brand mascots -- and even celebrities’ younger selves -- to life on screen. Honda, Mr. Clean and Bud Light were three notable brands using CGI in their ads, and each tended to polarize audience opinion.
Mr. Clean is a perfect case study of the "uncanny valley" -- a shorthand term for a complicated set of emotional responses that we humans have when confronted with human-like figures or images.
As a rule, we feel more empathy the more that human-like features are present; but that good feeling drops off sharply when those humanoids seem almost too real, yet still not completely human. That drop, presented on a line chart, is what we call "the valley."
Images which fall into that zone are usually described as disgusting or creepy -- and neither of those traits is good news for brands.
Image from Wikipedia entry on the uncanny valley
While Mr. Clean may have triggered uncanny responses from some audience members, that sentiment doesn’t seem to have been universal. This indicates that only particular elements of the ad failed to play well with certain people, rather than the whole thing falling short. That is good news, but should be a wake-up call for the brand itself.
After all, one of the biggest advantages of CGI technology is the control it can give advertising creatives to make edits and revise the work to deliver against the needs of the brand.
Testing, learning and succeeding
With so much riding on how brands present themselves amid the noise of daily life, not to mention those hotly contested Super Bowl slots, rigorous research and review is crucial to understanding how, even down to the second, advertising can be honed and made more effective to its target audiences.
Right now, we can be sure that the Patriots and Falcons alike will be reviewing hours of Super Bowl footage in detail, honing strategy and execution for their next game.
Advertisers, no matter whether they won or lost in the ad stakes this year, should be doing exactly the same. Such Monday morning quarterbacking will help make those $5 million slots go the extra mile next year.