With the “big game” in the rear-view mirror, looming large is the ultimate creative and strategic test: Will Super Bowl ad performance actually move the needle for brands’ market share and mind-share?
All we can do right now is guess until the sales numbers arrive. But AAF DC’s Between Downs panel, combined with USA Today’s Super Bowl AdMeter, gave some good indications of which brands will take home the bottom-line honors. The panel moderator was David Meeks, managing editor of USA Today Sports Media Group and the panelists were Nathaniel Kronisch, media director, Buying Time; Amanda Markmann, creative director, Adfero; Mike O’Brien, associate creative director, IStrategy Labs; Louise Salas, associate creative director, Wunderman DC; and Mick Sutter, creative director, Huge DC.
KIA Nero: Hero’s Journey
Topping the charts on AdMeter was Kia Nero’s ad for a hybrid SUV that featured Melissa McCarthy in a variety of unlikely but humorous “eco-warrior” roles. Aside from O’Brien, who thought the spot belittled serious ecological problems, and Sutter, who didn’t think the “Chaplin-esque” iceberg split was funny, the commercial was well-received in the room.
To the positive, points contributed by both the panelists and audience included:
- Successful celebrity endorsement. McCarthy’s star couldn’t shine brighter in lieu of her hysterical role-playing as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live. Even if this spot were only viewed as a form of celebrity endorsement, a large number of people will look into the Kia Nero and see what the buzz is all about.
- Virtually anything set to “I Need a Hero” has a good chance of success during the Super Bowl, but here it actually helped tie the entire story together in a way that (probably not coincidentally) reverberated with the name of the car.
- “Not Hamsters.” Some funny commercials are so engaging, the product gets lost in the narrative, but not here. Among longtime industry observers, the Kia brand was memorable, if only because the car maker was moving beyond hamsters into more serious issues that might resonate with hybrid car owners.
- Fans gather to watch the Super Bowl in a lighthearted mood – they stay up too late on a “school night,” drink a little too much beer and eat too much. Commercials that successfully leverage humor, even if that humor includes poking fun at objectively serious issues, succeed in this environment.
- Great “money shot.” Woven into the narrative toward the end of the spot, there’s a great sequence of McCarthy actually driving the car – and she looks good behind the wheel.
- Throughout the spot, McCarthy’s facial expressions convey true belief in environmental causes, to the extent that she’s literally willing to put her life at risk, albeit in spoof mode.
- Mood of the country. Kia may have made its greatest contribution to the conversation about transportation and the environment by tapping into the ongoing mood of the country that people “just want to do something” to make the world a better place. If making a small concession like switching from a gas-guzzling SUV to a hybrid helps, why not give it a try?
To the negative:
- Audience millennials were the first to point out that “hybrid SUV” is an oxymoron. Does making light of ecological crises really help in that context?
- Did the slapstick “miss”? It may work for superheroes, but does it sell cars? Since it doesn’t really speak to what distinguishes this vehicle from any other, why do it?
Honda CRV: Yearbooks
Coming in second in the AdMeter derby, where car brands dominated the top three spots this year, was Honda’s spot featuring a diverse batch of celebrities animatedly speaking good advice about following your dreams from their actual yearbook photos. While all the creatives on our Between Downs panel loved the execution of this ad, their take on whether the spot would sell Hondas was mixed.
Again, to the positive:
- Positive message, celebrating diversity, made the messaging a “great fit” for the night. Tapping a diverse mix of non-stereotypical success stories, from Viola Davis to Stan Lee, made for a highly creative and satisfying mix. The “follow your dream” messaging is inspiring at any age, and might have reflected Honda’s need to convey that it has “grown up” with the 2017 CRV.
- Millennials made the connection to the yearbook theme. Said one audience member: “When I graduated high school, all of my friends had Hondas. Every_single_one.” They might not have started out with a CRV, but going from yearbooks to heart-warming advice from celebrities who had “made it” to car buying wasn’t that big of a stretch.
- Burnishing the brand. “Honda cares about diversity,” was the take-away one audience member derived from this spot, which seemed a better fit for Honda than for Audi (more on that below.)
- Great follow-through. The following day on Snapchat, Honda used a sponsorship to superimposed yearbook photo frames to continue the conversation. This observation contained a backhanded caveat though – how many 13- to 17-year-olds influence car buying?
To the negative:
- What do yearbooks have to do with cars? One panelist struggled to figure out, “What was the brief on this?” Was there some piece of research that told them that recent graduates, or those pulling out their yearbooks for a 10-year reunion were more likely to buy a Honda? If so, then great. If not, what’s the connection?
The conversation about the Audi commercial featuring a dad commenting about equal rights and equal pay for women while his tom-boy daughter engaged in a soapbox derby race offered a surprising take-away. Inasmuch as Super Bowl ads represent the ultimate play for mass market reach, isn’t it interesting that reactions to whether a commercial is good or bad so often come down to whether they resonate on a personal level?
Fathers with daughters loved the spot because it struck a chord with them – something about wanting to make the world a better place for them. Women were more likely to respond negatively to the ad, finding the commentary about equal rights a little arcane, and the hypothetical conversation between father and daughter unlikely at best. Said one male panelist about his wife’s reaction to the spot: “She said, so Audi wants to pay women the same. What do they want, a cookie?”
To the positive:
- Captured a feeling of nostalgia. One panelist said, “Soap box derby cars were never that cool. It was like something out of Little Rascals.” Then again, it might have been the boomer audience – the “dads” out there – who represent Audi’s target loyalists, and they would be most likely to remember such craft car races from their own past. The tomboy daughter was well-cast and the dirt on her face completed the picture.
To the negative:
- Too nostalgic with respect to the issue of equal pay for equal rights. This should be a given by now. Did the way Audi spotlighted gender equality invite unwanted scrutiny to its own lack of same among its upper management? (The company has only two women in senior leadership, according to one panelist.) And was a statement about social responsibility the best play for a company that owns Volkswagen, recently fined for knowingly disabling climate controls in its automobiles? Kronisch said, “If we’re talking about corporate responsibility, it’s almost like they’re saying, pay no attention to this thing that’s going on over there; just don’t look.” If Audi had coupled this with a program saying it was working on solving the internal issue, the concept might have “sold” the audience better.
- You can’t fake corporate responsibility. In an age where interactivity and transparency are one in the same, what brands do in real life instantly becomes a part of the conversation about their marketing. Maybe Audi shouldn’t pontificate when it comes to gender equality – or it should make a public commitment to doing a better job of it.
Avocados from Mexico – Secret Society
People want to love this brand because of the genius it displayed in its first ever Super Bowl commercial focused on the “First Draft Ever.” This year’s effort fell flat despite a funny cameo by Jon Lovitz.
To the negative:
- One panelist said, “It was so secret, I didn’t get what the secret was.”
- The brand released a 90-second version of the spot, which nearly everyone in the business of advertising saw. Unfortunately, the 30-second version lost something in the translation.
- The company brief was allegedly to target moms and restauranteurs – a feat that would have been better accomplished with targeted advertising than an expensive Super Bowl ad.
- The company employed auto tweets, a tactic that annoyed at least one audience member. (Disclosure: it was the author ;-).
Square Space – John Malkovich Get Out of My Name
While millennials in the audience readily admitted never having heard of the movie Being John Malkovich which was the underlying concept for this spot, they thought it succeeded on the message. Said one, “It’s a real problem. He wants to start a clothing line and somebody snatched his domain.” Agreed another, “While some parts were lost on me, the core message wasn’t.”
That said, O’Brien wondered whether millennials weren’t the target of such a spot anyway. With them, “The whole idea of having a website has kind of gone by the wayside,” as they’ve moved to Facebook and Instagram. But for those with experience who believe having a website is a pain to maintain, the fact that Square Space will help you do that was conveyed effectively. “I also like the fact that he (Malkovich) called the person (encroaching on his space) vs. sending an email.”
Snickers’ Live vs. Tide’s ‘Fake Live’ Stain
The Snickers live ad staged in an old Western also seemed to fall as flat as the fake town. The surprise conclusion: audiences have come to expect and welcome the little imperfections that come along with a live airing of Grease or Rocky Horror Picture Show. In that context, the Snickers spot – with its expertly choreographed fake town demolition – felt too “pre-made.” It was “too flawless” in its execution, and so missed capturing the genuineness that could have come from more minor flubs.
Conversely, Tide succeeded with its anticipation of what would have happened on Twitter if Terry Bradshaw would have appeared on camera with a stain on his shirt. A golf-cart race to Jeffrey Tambour’s house succeeds in getting the stain out by running the shirt through the wash. “Integration” with the live-action stars on FOX Sports’ set may have made the difference here. As USA Today’s story on the spot commented, “In fact, at one point it was hard to tell where [reality] ended and the other began, a meta moment for the digital age.”
Mr. Clean, 84 Lumber, Hyundai
Maybe the truest indication of how individual reactions trump reach in determining the success or failure of Super Bowl ads came in Kronisch’s quip about the Mr. Clean commercial. Kronisch, who is hair-challenged, said, “I don’t know why they had to CGI Mr. Clean when there are plenty of very attractive, bald white males” around.
The joke evoked laughter, but also some in the crowd wondering why the “real” cleaner in the fantasy couldn’t have been Asian or black. The frumpy white guy worked for most in making the point that, “What’s sexier than a guy who cleans?” But at least one panelist wondered whether the spot was “A little too sexual because Mr. Clean is such an innocent cleaning product. Why’d you make him dirty?”
Kronisch landed in another keen observation with his retort: “Yeah, but how great was it that this year lacked a sleazy GoDaddy ad or [a scantily dressed actress] eating a cheeseburger? This year we had ‘man-bassadors’ and maybe that’s a good thing!”
Most of the panel thought 84 Lumber’s The Journey spot was beautifully crafted, and driving viewers to see “the rest of the story” at http://Journey84.com was smart in light of “the wall” portion of the ad being rejected by Fox as “too controversial.” (See the company press release about their decision here.)
The problem most had with the spot derived from behind-the-scenes controversy and the sheer expense of a 90-second spot ($15MM?) for a brand that didn’t seem to make the connection between immigration and its company values. The company tried, in subsequent releases and a note from the CEO on Facebook, to clarify its position that it favored providing opportunities for people who wanted to enter the US legally, but for some on the panel, this came off as a retreat from its own ad. “It’s not cool that they reneged; it makes me think less of them,” said one panelist.
The bigger problem may have been the brand’s lack of national recognition – ironically, a condition that Super Bowl ads seem tailor-made to address. While the company does operate 250 stores in 30 states, there are just three in California, and none in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Hispanics in the U.S. Here again, targeting the video to places closer to places where retail outlets exist might have been a better use of marketing dollars.
Finally, although Huyndai aired its live commercial just after the Super Bowl to avoid the AdMeter competition (which it won last year), it scored high for innovation and execution. Pulling off a live spot that put military families into a real-time, 360-degree environment where they could watch the Super Bowl with their families who were at the game was a logistical triumph. Even here, however, there were a few mutterings about the exploitation of military families – a downside which, again, came from the perspective of someone for whom that situation is a reality.
In a truly interactive age that allows for efficient targeting of audiences with video spots, are Super Bowl ads becoming anachronistic? Repeatedly, our panelists observed that those spots that “worked” did so because they resonated with their own personal experience. The few that triumphed in a general sense did so by succeeding as their own form of entertainment.
But even the latter only worked where the narrative used in that entertainment mirrored the brand’s own ethos and practices. In short, in a transparent, digital age, audiences are increasingly sophisticated about marketing generally, and not easily buffaloed.
Outside of the advertising insiders’ bubble, though, what makes Super Bowl ads succeed in practice are the conversations they start. Our panelists and audience sparked a conversation. We hope you’ll join it.