Animals, Celebrities, Old Movie Trailers…What Works in Super Bowl Advertising

Dr. Linda Ferrell, professor and chair of the Department of Marketing in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, dishes super secrets about Super Bowl ads

Dr. Linda Ferrell

With so many new communications platforms for marketers to use these days, does the Super Bowl ad still hold the same weight as it once did in terms of effectiveness and considering the large cost involved?

Ferrell: The Super Bowl is a massive cultural celebration. Whether you’re into sports or football, we love to get together with friends and enjoy the Super Bowl. Its effectiveness…it brings together colleagues, families and friends. Its viewership last year was over 103 million people in the U.S. The rate per 30-second ad is also a proxy for efficacy with this year’s Super Bowl charging a record $5.25 million ($1 million more than the 2014 Super Bowl).

The beauty is in the strategy for the ad. The very best ads get talked about, tweeted and discussed on morning shows and talk shows for days after the Super Bowl. Media outlets have “Ad Meters” where viewers can share their thoughts on best and worst ads. In addition, the very worst ads get traction and visibility. Your worst nightmare as a Super Bowl advertiser is to be in the middle and not be noticed or talked about. Your $5.25 million is well spent if you end up getting a lot of “free residual press.”

Often, it seems Super Bowl ads are focused on making the viewer laugh—hoping to provide a memorable “water cooler” moment. Does this method of marketing still work best, or should Super Bowl advertisers consider a different, more conscientious approach in such a day and age of political and societal turmoil?

Ferrell: The Super Bowl is a celebration with friends, family, food and frosty beverages. Social issue ads have to be handled very carefully to be successful. They must be very optimistic in their perspective and they are indeed, challenging for this broadcast. Nationwide ran an ad, “The Boy Who Didn’t Grow Up” in the Super Bowl a few years ago. The ad was highly controversial as it had a young boy stating that he “couldn’t grow up because he died in an accident.” The response was an “outrage” from the audience. Tweets started immediately: “Nationwide just ruined the Super Bowl.”; “Not cool, Nationwide. Not cool.”; “Nationwide Monday morning staff meeting is going to be a humdinger.”; and “Worst play in Super Bowl history #Nationwide #WhatWereYouThinking.”

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This year we will see more ads featuring successful female celebrities and athletes including Serena Williams.

What trends are you seeing in advertising that we might look out for while watching this year’s Super Bowl?

Ferrell: Continuation of what marketing research knows that works in Super Bowl ads: Use animals, humor, celebrities, food (snack, frosty beverages, restaurant) and early movie trailers and promotion. Historically, movies that are promoted in the Super Bowl far exceed total box office receipts of those that are marketed more traditionally. Historically there have been eight to 10 movie trailers in the Super Bowl. This year there is expected to be three or four. The increasing cost of ads and declining box office revenue are contributing to this effect.

Dr. Linda Ferrell is professor and chair of the Department of Marketing in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. Her research interests include marketing ethics, ethics training and effectiveness, the legalization of business ethics as well as corporate social responsibility and sustainability. She has served as an account executive in advertising with McDonalds’ and Pizza Hut’s advertising agencies in Houston, Indianapolis and Philadelphia. She was recently honored as the Innovative Marketer of the Year by the Marketing Management Association.

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