Scoring Super Bowl ads: why 'disgust' isn't a good strategy

Scoring Super Bowl ads: why 'disgust' isn't a good strategy
February 4, 2013, 5:15 pm
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Super Bowl Sunday has always been the biggest day of the year for football fans – no question. But, as time goes on, there’s another segment of the population who gets just as giddy for its approach: advertisers.

Much like the players on the field, the Super Bowl offers big-league brands the opportunity to reach “elite” status, the only difference being the players  are getting paid and the advertisers are shelling out an average $133,000 per second.

What do the two groups have most in common? There’s no guarantee of success on their big day.

For the game, we can gauge success by the scoreboard. For the commercials, we turn to Derek Rucker, Associate Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University, and a panel of over fifty students from the Kellogg School of Management. For the ninth year in a row, this group has gathered together for the Super Bowl and rated the advertisers with their unique ADPLAN criteria, which is based on Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification and Net equity.

So who got the top marks this year? That honor went to Tide for its “miracle stain” ad. It was closely followed by M&Ms, Best Buy, Axe, Wonderful Pistachios and Jeep.

“I think what they all have in common is they weren’t only engaging - so we wanted to watch the ads, they were creative - but they strategically had a message,” Rucker said.

“Tide, I think people will like it, they’ll enjoy it, but it wasn’t just a laugh-fest. It had good brand linkage,” Rucker said. “It’s successful because if you look at our framework, we want strategy and we want creative.”



The story of a miraculous and worship-inducing Joe Montana stain on a 49ers jersey definitely fit the creative bill, and the dramatic conclusion, wherein the Ravens-inclined wife washes out the fortuitous stain with Tide, brings us back to Tide as the industry leader in stain removal.

Many brands weren’t as lucky. Rucker and his panel gave their lowest grades to Go Daddy, Century 21, Calvin Klein, Lincoln and Blackberry.

“For the Go Daddy spot … When you do things that will offend or disgust certain members of your audience, it’s going to be hard to do well overall,” Rucker said. “The challenge I’d put to them is, is there a way you can actually involve and engage the consumer without offending any of them?”


Dan Fietsem, Chief Creative Officer at Energy BBDO, also struggled with Go Daddy’s message: “I thought the most interesting aspect is that it ran in the pod as the Audi Prom spot. Both were Revenge of the Nerds fantasies, with Audi being more artfully produced and Go Daddy going for the gross-out factor.… Neither spot really, for me, connected to their respective brands.”

Even with its high cringe-factor, Go Daddy didn’t lay claim to the lowest score of the day – that misfortune goes to Blackberry.

“Blackberry did poorly. That was really unfortunate for them, because I think that was a brand that came in and really needed to get a touchdown and they walked away with nothing,” Rucker said. “They essentially gave us the message of ‘there’s lots of things that our product doesn’t do;’ it left a lot of our panelists wondering ‘well, what do you do?’ … that was a faux pas on their part.”


Some of the spots receiving a C-average grade from Rucker’s group were Volkswagen, Skechers, Gildan, Dodge and Budweiser.

Volkswagen’s “Get Happy” spot drew some controversy for featuring a white Minnesotan man with a heavy Jamaican accent, whereas Gildan’s ad depicted a guy walking out on a one-night stand – but not before he took back his t-shirt from the girl in question.


“The brand that kind of surprised me the most … was Budweiser,” Rucker said. “They had the Clydesdale spot, which is strong equity, strong emotion. It fits with what I expect of that brand … where they fell short, and I was kind of disappointed, was the Bud Light spots were more mediocre this year, they weren’t quite as punchy as the past."

But mostly, the biggest issue with ad spots in this year’s Super Bowl was a lack of creativity.

“They seem and feel more formulaic than ever,” Fietsem said. “Like they are engineered to win a poll and not something that move a brand forward. Celebrities, animals, violence (goats, squirrels, Danica Patrick, Willem Dafoe) peppered with a couple of extremely earnest heart-tuggers (Jeep, Ram).”

“Unlike other Super Bowls where we had ads we’ll remember for a long time, I’m not sure that many, if any, of these will stand the long-term test of time,” Rucker said. “I think if I wanted to kind of encapsulate the tone this year I would call it safe.”

Next year, Rucker said he hopes brands can “hold on to that great strategy and somehow find a way to couple it with great creative.”  

Oddly enough, Super Bowl teams probably say the same about their gameplan.