08 Feb 2012

Sizing Up the Super Bowl Ads

Harvard Business School's Stephen Greyser, an authority on advertising, marketing, and the business of sports, offers his views on the other big game on Super Bowl Sunday—the commercials.
Stephen Greyser

The 2012 Super Bowl drew some 111 million viewers, once again the season's largest TV audience. When it comes to Super Bowl commercials, there is also another distinction. Most viewers actually watch them rather than head for the refrigerator.

One trend worth noting: The much wider—and deliberate—advance availability of many commercials to create buzz before the game via Web sites and social media. Chevrolet (which invited consumers to interact and which upped the ante by offering automobiles as prizes), Volkswagen, and Coca-Cola were among those using this approach. This trend is making the Super Bowl commercial its own "sports-based sponsored property," where the commercial can be leveraged and "activated" to strengthen the brand's marketing program.

So, who were the "winners" in the big game—and I'm not talking about the New York Giants? The generally accepted basis for judging is "likeability." But I disagree—not because it's bad to be liked, but because "liking" alone may not be sufficient to generate impact to achieve marketing goals. For example, General Electric's corporate message about how its employees' efforts help other companies and workers advanced positive ideas about GE. But the ad wasn't as likeable as Met Life's cartoon characters, Pepsi's "Elton John as king," or other more entertainment-based ads.

When is "liking" really important? My answer: for widely-known consumer brands where reinforcing positive consumer feelings is more important than emphasizing brand differentiation. This year's Coca-Cola animated polar bears were an example of that tactic, aiming to create both consumer engagement and positive attitudes. The Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales are a perennial illustration of liking via vignettes, evoking positive and emotional responses from viewers. Volkswagen went down that road on Sunday by telling the story of a dog that trains, well, like a dog in order to race with a VW Beetle. Also in that genre was Doritos (notable for some five years for using consumer-created commercials), which used an amusing "snatch the package" tale that put the brand name front and center several times during the commercial.

As usual, many advertisers favored big productions to communicate their message. Chevrolet Silverado, for instance, captured attention for its "end of the world" commercial with elaborate visual effects that emphasized the truck's solid construction. To further make the point, the spot took what some saw as an infelicitous slap at Ford by name.

Another epic effort was Chrysler's two-minute halftime ad, narrated by Clint Eastwood and continuing its 2011 "Made in Detroit" series. The product itself seemed beside the point, which was to create nationalistic good feeling and some sense that the Great Recession was on its way out.

Finally, what advertiser had the most opportunity to influence viewers? That's easy. NBC, the network that brought us all this. As usual, a large number of promos ran on behalf of regular and special NBC programming—from the premiere of "Smash" to the coming of the London Olympics next summer. After all, one hundred and eleven million viewers would be a terrible thing to waste.

Stephen Greyser is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at Harvard Business School.

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