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Consumer Behavior Professor Evaluates Super Bowl LII Commercials

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With more than 100 million eyes on football’s biggest stage, advertisers shelled out $5 million dollars for 30-second spots during Super Bowl LII. We asked Assistant Professor of Marketing James Mourey what he thought about this year’s ads and whether they are worth the money.

Mourey teaches consumer behavior and is the author of two books: “Urge: Why You Really Want What You Want (And How To Make Everyone Want What You've Got)” and “Fusion: A Modern 'How-To' Guide For Integrated Marketing Strategy (From Creative Spark To Synergistic Explosion).”

Overall, how were the Super Bowl ads? Did they have you yelling “Dilly, Dilly!” or were you asking Alexa to change the channel? Did you notice any new trends?

I thought the ads were average to below average. In an era of digital marketing and media, Super Bowl ads may not be the smartest investment, particularly when people are increasingly more likely to avert their eyes from the screen to check their text messages and social media accounts during commercial breaks. I thought some ads did their job which, importantly, is not just to entertain but also to serve a marketing objective like increasing brand awareness, encouraging purchasing of a product, etc. But so many of the commercials failed to hit any smart target. I also noticed a shift in who was advertising—lots of media companies like trailers for films and TV shows—but this makes sense, as the budgets for these campaigns allot more for this kind of advertising than a brand or product's budget (plus, these studios and companies, like Amazon, are overflowing with cash and can easily afford the $5 million price).

What were your favorite ads and which missed the mark?

My favorites were probably the Australian “Dundee” tourism ad, the E-Trade ad, Toyota's Mobility Anthem, and both Anheuser-Busch’s Dilly Dilly spots and their emergency water commercial. When I teach “Integrated Marketing Strategy” and in my book "Fusion," I discuss how a great campaign needs to capture attention and do one of four things (do MORE): 1) multiply purchases; 2) open up new options for consumers; 3) rally the troops; and/or 4) educate. To do this, we use research and creativity to generate a “Big Idea” that we can LOVE: is Logical, One-of-a-kind, permits Variations on the theme and is Emotionally evocative or otherwise engaging. Each of these commercials checks off those boxes.

I do want to point out some tension about the Tide ad campaign. Some people love it, and from the perspective of both repetition (which aids encoding/memory of the commercial) and surprise (doing a 180 on what customers think the ad is, which heightens attention), the ad is good. Where it fails is in its one-of-a-kindness—that is, we could easily swap out Tide as the product with Gain or Clorox or even Bounty paper towels and the ad is the same. It's an okay campaign, but it could be better.

Why is the Super Bowl important for advertisers and is it worth it to spend a lot of money on a Super Bowl ad?

The importance of the Super Bowl stems from two key ideas: 1) function, and 2) tradition. First, the functional reason advertising is so important for the Super Bowl is that, historically, you had more eyeballs on television screens than any other event during the course of a year. Knowing this, companies were willing to spend big money for advertisements with the idea being that one commercial would be viewed by a large portion of the population. Simple supply and demand then dictated that these media purchases become more and more expensive, which leaves only well-to-do companies able to afford the media time, companies with vast marketing budgets to pay agencies to come up with great campaigns. Plus, there's a lot more pressure to create a memorable campaign when we're talking about millions of dollars for a 30-second spot. 

From there, the second point, the Super Bowl ads have become a part of the Super Bowl tradition. Because of their historical importance and the disproportionate amount of money and attention paid to the development and execution of these spots, we now have groups of people who watch the game simply "for the ads." It's something we look forward to every year, which further sustains their importance and popularity, even in spite of data (like from this morning) that viewership of the game is down, on average, 3 percent. 

Whether or not it's worth it to spend money on an ad depends on the ad's effectiveness. Sure, you get a lot of awareness from the simple fact that millions of people are watching, but that can blow up in your face, like Ram's widely-panned MLK commercial that many people found to be in poor taste. 

In an era of social media, when people can give feedback (good or bad) to an ad and most people are tethered to their phones and social media accounts, companies would be wiser to pay attention to 1) how their ad may be received and discussed on social media and 2) whether their strategy includes a deliberate social media component integrated into the campaign.

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