—David Mitchel, Chief Marketing Officer at Norton Mitchel Marketing

It has been about a week since Super Bowl Sunday. Super Bowl ads are always a big story. This year was no exception. FOX charged brands nearly $3 million per 30 seconds of ad space. Without further ado, here are the 5 most relevant questions about Super Bowl advertising this year.

1. Can buzz from a Super Bowl ad build sales?

Volkswagen would like to believe so, after building a lot of buzz from the ad entitled “The Force”. In the ad, a young boy dressed as Darth Vader tries to use the force to create magical outcomes. He fails to do so, but goes outside to greet his dad who drives up in the all new 2012 Volkswagen Passat. The boy stands in front of the car and it starts, from the remote control that the father uses inside the house. The boy is impressed with his power, and the father is impressed with the car’s remote start feature.

The ad got a lot of people to talk and was generally well liked. However, the kid and the Darth Vader costume were the stars of the commercial, not the Volkswagen Passat. This ad reminds of the Terry Tate Office Linebacker ad from Reebok in the early 2000s. It built a lot of buzz but didn’t generate incremental sales. The failure of the Terry Tate ad campaign did cause an MBA level professor to write a marketing case study though.

The new Passat isn’t scheduled to hit the market until later this year, and the buzz from the commercial will have simmered by then. Of course, it probably won’t matter much because like the Terry Tate ads, the commercials didn’t connect meaningfully to the product advertised, nor did the commercial advertise a particularly unique feature.

2. Which brands did air ads that connected meaningfully to the product?

Teleflora, Snickers and Pepsi Max are examples of brands that achieved this. All of these brands aired ads that were relatable and the product remained the star.

In the Teleflora ad, Faith Hill encourages a young man to write a love message to his girlfriend from the heart. He writes to her “Your rack is unreal”. We then learn that Teleflora is good for men because it sends the right message to a woman unlike the man in commercial. This ad is well timed because the Super Bowl occurred only one week before Valentine’s Day, and men do not want to ruin a romance based holiday.

As for Snickers, it repeated the general idea of last year’s Super Bowl with Betty White. Richard Lewis and Rosanne Barr starred as lumber workers acting like divas. The tag line remained “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry”. The message is that Snickers satisfies a real hunger. This ad campaign shows a benefit to the product humorously, and connects to a base level emotion that we have. Snickers will have to be careful soon not to get too staid with their brand advertising.

Pepsi Max’s “First Date” was an absolute winner. A man and woman are on a first date with a degree of discomfort at a reasonably nice restaurant. We hear the woman’s inner monologue about some of the man’s physical and personal characteristics. The man is thinking about having sex with her until he sees a Pepsi Max and his thoughts are immediately diverted to Pepsi Max. This demonstrates in a humorous way that Pepsi Max is so delicious that it can divert a man’s attention away from sex. It demonstrates a functional benefit of the brand and fosters positive brand beliefs, making purchase more likely. The goal of advertising is not just to build buzz, but to deliver sales.

3. This year seemed to feature an awful lot of car advertising. Did any car brand air a quality ad?

Car brands mostly missed with their ads. I mentioned Volkswagen’s “The Force” ad above. Volkswagen’s aired another ad “Black Beetle”, which was a stronger ad that connected more meaningfully to the product, the black Volkswagen Beetle. Audi’s 1st quarter ad was too long for modern attention spans. Hyundai’s ads were critically panned.  None of Chevrolet’s ads seemed to have the capacity to resonate well. There was one ad with a pretty redhead (Miss Evelyn) for the new Camaro narrated by two men that fell a bit flat. It seemed to have a similar idea to a Miller Lite ad called Catfight from the early 2000s, but wasn’t executed as well.

BMW’s one ad about a new diesel car had strong imagery and was one of the best of the lot. The ad showed the car’s performance and showed how Diesel has changed. The song fit the ad’s premise well. In the past, I’ve covered effective uses of music in advertising.

Most of these car brands would be wise to learn from Subaru’s 1993 Super Bowl advertising snafu. In 1993, Subaru advertised during the Super Bowl to promote the new Impreza model. They bought two 15 second ads that didn’t stand out. Subaru has not aired a Super Bowl ad since then.  

4. Beer is a commonly advertised product category during the Super Bowl. How did the beer brands perform?

The beer brands didn’t do much better than the car brands. Bud Light had one of the biggest hits in the USA Today ad meter with this ad. The ad featured a man dog sitting and a fridge full of Bud Light. The man has a house party, and the dogs are the wait staff and even play a game of poker. Bud Light also parodies HGTV programming with a kitchen remodel where nothing changes except for placing Bud Light on a countertop. This ad should appeal to a wide range of people, particularly females, who make up a large portion of the audience and aren’t necessarily there just for the football. Bud Light’s slogan of “Here We Go” is rather undifferentiated and meaningless. The words “The sure sign of a good time” are uttered in both ads, and would make a better tagline. Both ads were entertaining, but not likely to make a material financial difference with the brand.

Budweiser aired an ad prominently featuring an Old West saloon and characters singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”. It might appear that the brand is trying to capture a sense of nostalgia and appeal to Baby Boomers. That’s a nice strategic move as I detailed some of Budweiser’s problems in a September 2010 blog post. The Baby Boomers are expected to outspend their younger generational peers and reconnecting with them would be a seemingly easier task that courting the drinker in their 20s now. If Budweiser continues with this approach for the next few years, it could have an impact, similar to how it took Procter & Gamble years to re-position Old Spice. Like Bud Light, I don’t see this ad reviving Budweiser’s fortunes in the short term.

Stella Artois made their Super Bowl debut with an ad featuring Adrien Brody in an upscale lounge reminiscent of a bygone era singing a love song. All the women think it is about them, but it is really about Stella Artois. This ad was critically panned by the masses. However, in the US, Stella Artois doesn’t have the same target market as Bud, Miller or Coors. It would occupy a similar place in the market as Heineken. Since the Super Bowl has such a wide audience, advertising a niche brand effectively can be difficult. If Stella Artois wanted to advertise during a sports championship game, the final round of Wimbledon might have been a better option and provided a stronger return on investment.

5. Why are kids and animals often a part of popular Super Bowl ads?

This year’s slate of Super Bowl ads was heavy on kids and animals. I mentioned Volkswagen and Bud Light’s usage of kids and animals. Doritos had an ad with a man taunting a pug with their product and Bridgestone used a beaver in one of its ads, which was the best use of an animal of the evening.

The E*Trade baby was back again. What is best about the E*Trade baby is that he is used in a number of different contexts, he’s funny and the ads connect meaningfully to the product. This ad shows that E*Trade can be used by anyone and can make a difference in a person’s financial life. 

Children and animals often resonate in ads because art imitates life. If you’ve ever visited a couple with a newborn baby in a group setting, everyone in the room will shower the baby with adulation. The same type of behavior is demonstrated in front of dogs in many cases.

Bonus question-Were all these ads worth it to the brands?

It depends. Here was my best attempt to answer the question of whether Super Bowl ads are worth it to brands.