A few years ago, FedEx delivered a 10-point solution to a problem that has stumped marketers for decades: how do you make a perfect Super Bowl commercial? Impressively, the shipping company delivered its lesson in about 45 seconds, with a famous 2005 Super Bowl spot starring Burt Reynolds. According to the ad, all that’s needed is a celebrity, an animal, a dancing animal, a cute kid, a kick in the groin, a talking animal, attractive females, a product message (optional), a famous pop song (in this case, Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey) and a bonus ending.
Of course the real formula is a little more scientific. Tim Calkins, a marketing professor from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has spent the last few years trying to nail it down. On Feb. 1, Calkins will gather about 40 marketing students together to rate the commercials (and perhaps watch a bit of football). Their resulting review, published annually since 2005, is based on a strategic set of criteria that’s designed to identify the ads most likely to increase sales and enhance the brand. “We’re less worried about creativity and humour on its own and more worried about which spots are building the business,” says Calkins. “It’s easier to make a funny spot than it is to make a funny spot that sells the product.”
The most successful Super Bowl ads from a business perspective, he says, are the ones that break through with viewers while focusing heavily on branding. For instance, last year’s winner, Proctor & Gamble’s Tide to Go ad (which featured a talking coffee stain), earned the review’s top grade for being both “entertaining” and having “clearly communicated the relevant product benefit.” But Calkins says that probably the most masterful marketer when it comes to consistently getting that mix of fun and product messaging right is Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch. “If there’s a playbook, Anheuser-Busch has it. You see the product from the first to the last frame,” he says. “They tell a funny joke. And they make the spot all about the product. You can’t tell a story about their ad without mentioning the brand.”
Other marketers can get too caught up in grabbing attention, and forget that they’re trying to sell. In 1993, for instance, a McDonald’s ad starring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird was hugely popular with viewers. The problem was that the concept, pitting the two basketball legends against one another, lacked a clear link to Big Macs. Many people, when polled, thought the ad was for Nike due to Jordan’s close association with the shoemaker. This was especially bad for Bird, who wore Converse during his career.
This year, more than 60 ads will vie for attention on a night when people are just as likely to be watching the commercials as they are the main event between Pittsburgh and Arizona. And the stakes, given the shaky economy and this year’s record price tag for the airtime ($3 million per 30-second slot), are the highest they’ve ever been.
With nearly 100 million Americans tuning in, the ads have to be “broadly relevant,” says Calkins. What worked during the regular season—bikinis and, well, more bikinis—doesn’t go over as well on Championship Sunday. The diversity of the audience makes targeting a specific demographic, a common marketing strategy, useless. And because of the pressure to create something fresh, marketers can’t simply carry a previous campaign forward, no matter how successful it has been in the past.
As always, though, Calkins says there are exceptions. The most notable was Apple’s 1984 spot for the Macintosh, which was hugely successful despite breaking many Super Bowl commercial conventions: it didn’t identify the product until the end of the ad, it starting very quietly and it completely lacked humour. Then there was Unilever’s real beauty ad in 2006. Who knew that a commercial about women and self-esteem, says Calkins, would be a hit during the Super Bowl?
We may see more ads like that this year, considering the economic climate. Calkins says he wouldn’t be shocked if a more serious ad was a top performer. “Advertisers will have to watch not to be too flippant and too out of touch,” he says. Then again, like FedEx, they might just hire a guy in a bear suit to kick Burt Reynolds between the legs.