Customer-obsessed marketing

2018 Super Bowl Ads: Plenty of Fumbles Off The Field

Jim Nail Principal Analyst
Joanna O'Connell Vice President, Principal Analyst
February 6, 2018

Few marketers can resist the lure of the Super Bowl ad hype. VP, Research Director Brigitte Majewski interviewed a few of us who cover all things marketing here at Forrester to get at what really matters when it comes to Super Bowl advertising and why.

Brigitte: The buzz in Marketingville around the Super Bowl is astounding. You would think nothing else was going on in the world. Back here in Reality, I have to ask, does the Super Bowl even matter? Yes, it offers astounding reach in a time when reach is increasingly fragmented. But what else?

Joanna O’Connell: What matters in 2018 is the very FACT that the Super Bowl is a rare shared experience in the hyper fragmented world of “television” we now live in. And yes, the quotes are deliberate with the very definition of “television” itself changing in a cord cutting, OTT, video on mobile phones world.

Super Bowl ads offer more than huge reach. Consumers watch Super Bowl ads not just for personal kicks but also for social currency. Whether your whole Super Bowl party pulls apart every ad or you tweet out your favs live, the ads enable consumers to engage in the social connection we all crave as humans.   As such it drives a receptivity and halo effect that, at that kind of scale, is tough to find these days. It’s the opposite of personalization! But depending on your brand strategy, it could be exactly what you need.

Jim Nail: Exactly! And that is why it’s the only time of the year when people are actually watching the ads….talking about them even before the game….and looking them up online. So the opportunity to get your message across is as unique as the reach is. Except for the Gen Z young people in the group I watched the game with – they remained glued to their phones throughout the game.

Brigitte: We’ve seen some brands get more mileage out of the Super Bowl event by extending their activations into digital channels, before, during and after the big game. Anyone doing this well? Given that you are writing our new Digital Omnichannel Playbook, did anyone appear to meet your gold standard, Joanna?

Joanna: Perhaps the new rule of thumb in advertising should be, rules are made to be broken. You’ve got to love Netflix for embracing that philosophy this year. A company which doesn’t accept advertising itself used Super Bowl advertising to promote a new film, “The Cloverfield Paradox” and IMMEDIATELY made it available to stream after the game. No advance warning, ad campaign or press. Film director Ava DuVernay summed it up well when she tweeted: “Woman of color-led, sci-fi thriller released worldwide day + date w/ big Netflix muscle for black director, his super producer + POC cast. No advance press, ads, trailer. Straight to the people. Gamechanger. Congrats to helmer #JuliusOnah + my dears JJ, Gugu, David. #Cloverfield.” (Too bad the reviews are terrible, Ava.)

Jim: Netflix gives me another example in my campaign to rid industry lexicon of the term “digital marketing”. It is nonsensical in 2018 to draw any distinction between digital and traditional. To me, Amazon obliterated the boundaries best, with teasing that Cardi B might be the new voice of Alexa at the Grammys, then releasing the Jeff Bezos spot online, and getting rumors going on social media about who the new voice might be. They had a fun, offbeat idea and allowed the consumer to follow it all the ways they use media today.

Brigitte: Several brands made the news last year with values-infused messaging in their Super Bowl commercial.  Why are we seeing this trend? Did you see that same trend this year? Do you think a Super Bowl commercial is the right vehicle for this type of messaging?

Jim: The concept of a “brand” has evolved, from just the classic set of characteristics – features, benefits, personality, promise – to include the values the brand stands for. There is a strong generational component to this – values are highly important to Millennials – but it also reflects broader societal attitudes. Trust in all institutions has been declining for decades and so they don’t expect government, the media, religious institutions or even academic institution to be able to effectively address societal issues. So people are taking matters into their own hands by putting their values behind their spending and, therefore, their brand choices.

A values-based strategy has to be much deeper than an ad campaign, much less a single Super Bowl ad. And given the high reach, if the brand takes a stand that is at all controversial, you are likely to reach as many people who disagree as agree. This year, brands tried to avoid this downside with commercials that were much more cautious, for example, T-Mobile’s “Little Ones” ad presented a generic equality message using babies of all colors and races – who can object to a message that they should all have equal opportunities?

Joanna: I’d describe this year’s crop of ads, overall, as “the year of trying too hard with mostly nonsensical and underwhelming results.” Brands seemed compelled to align to causes but often had no idea how to connect their message with their own brand story, values or products.

Jim: I agree, Joanna. A great example is the Mass Mutual “I’ll Stand By You” ad. Wonderful stories, inspiring message of how we all need to help those in need. But Mass Mutual made no attempt to link it to anything they are doing as a company. Many of the others like the Hyundai “Hope Detectors” spot and the Toyota “Good Odds” spot were straight corporate social responsibility messages. I have nothing against companies giving money to fight childhood cancer or supporting the Paralympics. But writing a check doesn’t mean you have core values, in fact, it can be seen as buying indulgences for bad acts.

Joanna: Where it DID work was where brands created a connection between idea and product, or idea and values that they were already known for. Case in point: Amazon’s Alexa ad worked for viewers because it was funny, relevant (both self-referential and self-deferential, really) and timely. Or when Jeep took “manifesto marketing” to task while making every off-roader drool with its “Anti-Manifesto” spot.

Budweiser took a risk this year in sidelining the much-loved Clydesdales in favor of cause marketing for something they’re not known for: clean drinking water. It cracked USAToday’s Ad Meter top three but with so much brand equity in the Clydesdales, it’s hard to know what was lost in excluding them.

All this with Super Bowl ad slot prices at an all time high and ad meter ratings on a steady downward slide, where 1990’s winners scored in the 9’s and this year’s winner, Amazon, scored just a 7.18.

Jim: Another reason marketers need to surround their ads with pre- and post-game activations: consumers’ expectations have gotten so high that it is almost impossible to impress them any more.

Brigitte: Did the best team win?

Joanna: I’ll admit, I’m not much of a football person. But who doesn’t love a good underdog story? So it should come as no surprise that I jumped up and down when the Eagles won 🙂

Jim: I’m with you Joanna. This was the only football game I have watched all season. But I was watching the game with a group of die-hard Pats fans and at the end of the game, even they said, “It was Philadelpia’s turn.” Both teams had great offensive games, there weren’t any controversial calls, few penalties, so the game was decided by each team’s ability. The Philadelphia defense won the game by forcing Brady to fumble and stopping two of his trademark fourth quarter come-from-behind drives. Gotta hand it to the Eagles…

Brigitte: So, great strategy and execution. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. 

A huge thanks to Stephanie Liu and Caitlin Wall for their help on this blog post.

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