4 lessons marketers can learn from the best (and worst) Super Bowl ads

BY Erinn Steringa

Even if you’re not shelling out for a spot in the big game, there’s still plenty to learn from the brands who do

Each year, the Super Bowl serves as a sort of “Advertising Olympics,” with the world’s top brands going for gold, putting it all on the line in the hopes that their on-screen performances will generate as much if not more buzz than anything that happens on the field.

But with NBC reportedly asking more than US$5 million for a 30-second spot, the dream of qualifying for a place in this Olympiad is far beyond the reach of most marketers. Even those brands that can afford to pay $100,000 a second for their Super Bowl moment are increasingly questioning the ROI and deciding to opt out (more on that below).

Luckily for the rest of us, there are still plenty of companies willing to throw an advertising Hail Mary for a shot at branding glory (or at least a bump in their stock price), which means we get the benefit of learning from their experiences—the good, the bad and the career-ending—while keeping our marketing budgets (and jobs) intact.

Let’s take a look at what all marketers can learn from the best—and worst—Super Bowl ads in recent years.

1. Don’t just tell a powerful story—tell it at the right time.

Budweiser’s winning streak

Storytelling is one of the most effective tools in any brand’s arsenal. Just ask Budweiser, whose Super Bowl entries in recent years—like 2014’s “Puppy Love” and its sequel, 2015’s “Lost Dog”—have topped USA Today’s Ad Meter with uplifting tales that tugged at our heartstrings and tapped into our collective obsession with fluffy, adorable creatures.

But that’s not to say brand stories have to be on the lighter side to be successful. With its 2017 Super Bowl commercial, “Born the Hard Way,” Budweiser recounted Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch’s journey from Germany to America in 1857 to brew beer, facing no shortage of hardship and anti-immigrant sentiment along the way.

Although the ad was nearly a year in the making, the fact that it premiered just days after US president Donald Trump issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States inevitably gave the spot an unwitting political bend that not everyone appreciated.

Nonetheless, the ad attracted more supporters than detractors, and helped Budweiser once again achieve top-five Ad Meter status. As Adweek’s Kristina Monllos put it, the ad “will undoubtedly go down as one of the most epic, moving and memorable ads in Budweiser’s long and storied history of Super Bowl spots.”

Nationwide’s buzzkill

Sadly, not every Super Bowl brand story has a happy ending, as insurance giant Nationwide found out the hard way in 2015. In what some have described as the worst Super Bowl ad of all time, the Nationwide ad featured a young boy talking about the things he’ll never get to experience, like learning to ride a bike or falling in love.

Why? Because, well, he’s dead. Yep. From a preventable household accident—which Nationwide was ostensibly trying to raise awareness of as the number one cause of childhood deaths in America. Go, Seahawks!*

Upon airing, viewer response ranged from shock and confusion to hostility and outrage toward the brand, speaking volumes about the power of a story, clumsily told, completely at the wrong time.

“It’s safe to say that reminding viewers of the most traumatic events in the realm of human experience while family and friends are gathered around plates of Buffalo wings did not turn out to be a great marketing strategy,” noted Bleacher Report, adding that rather than “associating their product with household safety and prudent parenting,” the ad only “baffled and depressed Super Bowl viewers.”

Adweek collected a snapshot of Twitter’s reaction with its “10 Tweets That Show How Big a Buzzkill Nationwide Was With Its Morbid Super Bowl Ad,” which included the following gems:

In the resulting ad-pocalypse for Nationwide, the spot was quickly pulled, defiant public statements were made, the CMO left his position shortly after, and the company—which at the time hadn’t run a Super Bowl ad since 2007—still hasn’t made a return to the big game.

However, not all is doom and gloom for Nationwide: its Peyton Manning “Jingle Sessions” ads are apparently still going strong … much to the chagrin of anyone who’s already sat through 19 Sundays (and counting) of the erstwhile quarterback giving vocal training advice.

*Editor’s note: No one here at the Goods & Services offices would ever cop to being a Seahawks fan, but we’ll allow it since cheering for the Patriots in 2015 (or this Sunday) would be tantamount to cheering for taxes or the inevitable heat death of the solar system. The call on the field stands.

2. Just because your competitors are doing it doesn’t mean you have to.

Every industry has them: The trade show where you just have to buy a booth. The awards gala you simply must sponsor. The annual edition of that magazine where you always run a full-page ad. And more often than not, it’s overpriced, flooded with your competition and delivering diminishing returns with each passing year.

The Super Bowl is no different—and more and more, we’re seeing a number of brands re-evaluate whether the big game is somewhere they need to be. In recent years, several brands with successful Super Bowl track records have opted out for a variety of reasons—like website services firm Wix (“better ways to invest the company’s money”), auto giant Honda (“does not align well with the timing of our product launch activities”) and perennial Super Bowl standout Doritos (“did not fit with our marketing plans”)—although the latter will be making a return via a joint ad with Mountain Dew in this year’s event.

And it’s not just about the cost. As marketing professors Tim Calkins and Derek D. Rucker wrote, while the Super Bowl has “enormous reach,” it also has “an enormous amount of clutter.” People will watch up to 70 ads, in addition to the halftime show and the game itself—and most will be doing this while they’re eating, drinking and talking. It’s “difficult,” the authors conclude, “to have an impact that lasts beyond the 30-seconds of airing.”

Furthermore, Stanford University researchers found that, although Super Bowl ads for beer and soda companies were largely successful in increasing sales, “when two major soda brands both advertise, much of this gain is lost.”

So, next time you’re thinking of adding your brand to a simmering pot of logo soup, ask yourself whether that money could be better spent. Not only is the fact that your competitors are there insufficient grounds for participation, it may be reason enough to take a pass.

3. If you’re aligning your brand with a cause, make sure you walk the talk.

Cause marketing—where for-profit brands align themselves with social or charitable causes for (ideally) mutual benefit—has increased exponentially in recent years, and for good reason: a 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of consumers were willing to pay more for products from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact. Of that consumer group, more than one-third reported being positively influenced by TV ads that showcased that commitment.

However, linking a social, environmental or charitable cause with your brand in a Super Bowl ad that costs $1 million or so to produce and more than $5 million to air is no small task, leaving viewers wondering whether, in many cases, you spent more on the ad than the actual cause. And it only gets worse if you appear less than committed to said cause. At best, you’re perceived as inauthentic; at worst, hypocritical.

Audi’s fumble

German automaker Audi found itself in the latter position after last year’s Super Bowl with its ad, “Daughter,” which focused on the gender pay gap. In the ad, a father watches his daughter race go-karts against boys, and wonders how he’ll tell her that “despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets.”

While some applauded Audi for putting the spotlight on an important issue, others found the ad to be patronizing and disingenuous, pointing to the car company’s less-than-exemplary record on gender equality in the workplace.

As Forbes noted: “Audi has no women on its six-person executive team. Its supervisory board … is only 16% women. That’s below the already-low average of 20% for female representation on corporate boards of Fortune 500 firms, and significantly lower than BMW’s 30%.”

Groupon’s offside foul

Audi, however, still has a long way to go to reach the heights/depths of what is arguably the most egregious example of cause hijacking at the Super Bowl: Groupon’s 2011 spot, “Save the Money—Tibet.”

After opening with scenes of Tibet’s majestic mountains and vibrant culture, the ad—narrated by Timothy Hutton—quickly goes off the rails: “The people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com, we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”

Yikes. Cue 100 million viewers cringing in unison. Oddly enough, the ad was intended to be a spoof of brands that use charitable causes for shameless self-promotion, and was even directed by mockumentary filmmaker extraordinaire Christopher Guest of Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show fame.

Alas, no one else was in on the joke, and Groupon became the target of massive public outcry for appearing to trivialize a serious human rights situation. However, after sitting out the big game for the past seven years since “Tibet,” Groupon will be making a return to the Super Bowl this year—this time with a less controversial ad starring comedian (and celebrity Groupon enthusiast) Tiffany Haddish.

4. Marketing success is never final, and failure is rarely fatal.

This final lesson features a story that only a marketer could find inspirational, involving that most polarizing of Super Bowl advertisers, GoDaddy.com.

From spots like “Smart Meets Sexy” to “Shower” (deliberately not linked), search “worst Super Bowl ads of all time” and a GoDaddy oeuvre is sure to appear. One of those places is ESPN’s list of the worst Super Bowl Ads of the last 15 years, which summed up the website-hosting company’s strategy as follows:

“For as horrible and cheesy as GoDaddy Super Bowl ads were, there’s little doubt they worked. GoDaddy spent a ton of money on Super Bowl spots, but it helped the company become the leader in website domain name sales … Out of all the companies on this list, GoDaddy execs would be the only ones to smile at their appearance. Why? Because they purposely made controversial ads so we’d talk about them … Creepy? Check. Gross? Check. Conversation starter at the Super Bowl party? Check.”

But our unlovable anti-heroes hit a major roadblock in 2015, when “Journey Home”—GoDaddy’s parody of Budweiser’s wildly popular puppy ad—went a step too far. Both ads told the story of a puppy who lost its way, enduring a series of adorable adventures before finding its way home. However, in the GoDaddy version, rather than returning to its loving owner and Clydesdale friends, the pupper was greeted by an owner who was only happy to see him because “I just sold you on this website I built with GoDaddy. Ship him out!” Oof.

The uproar was nearly instantaneous, with viewers and animal advocacy organizations alike accusing GoDaddy of promoting everything from careless online-adoption practices to puppy mills. There was even a petition on Change.org that amassed over 40,000 signatures demanding that the ad be pulled.

GoDaddy quickly apologized and pulled the ad (which had been released early online), and announced that it would not air during the Super Bowl after all.

This left GoDaddy in something of a bind, as it had already paid for the spot, and now, with the game just days away, no longer had an ad. So its agency, Barton F. Graf—in what we can only assume was a period of sheer terror and anxiety for all involved—somehow did the unthinkable: it turned around a brand-new Super Bowl ad in a matter of days.

The agency’s founder and chief creative officer, Gerry Graf, recently discussed the experience on Adweek‘s excellent podcast, Yeah, That’s Probably an Ad:

“What GoDaddy asked us to do was just run an old commercial … but we were like, no, let’s see if we can turn this into a good story … We decided to take a different tack. We didn’t have to get people’s attention anymore because people were waiting to see what GoDaddy did. So, in 36 hours, what we ended up doing was crafting a very non-GoDaddy-like commercial.”

That commercial, “Working,” was simple and gimmick-free, and spoke directly to GoDaddy’s core constituency: small business owners everywhere who were too busy working to watch the Super Bowl. It was authentic, even touching, and it worked—significantly increasing post-game traffic to GoDaddy.com and reversing some of the negative brand perceptions from earlier in the week.

So the next time you find yourself up against a seemingly impossible deadline, just think of GoDaddy and Graf: while their efforts may not rank among the top Super Bowl comebacks of all time, you have to respect—and be more than a little motivated by—their perseverance and grit.