The $2.7 Million Question: Do Super Bowl Ads Pay?
I know what you did last week (assuming you don’t live under a rock). If you were one of the millions who watched the Super Bowl this past Sunday, you more than likely were wondering what some advertisers must have been thinking (ahem, SalesGenie) to run a certain ad.
Well, your humble host wondered the same thing, and set out to find the truth about what a company can expect out of a Super Bowl appearance. Interestingly, once a company advertises on the Super Bowl, they find it very hard to do without it the next year. It’s almost like a drug habit. Partially because they become part of the tradition of that memorable time (think Bud Light ads), and partially because they want to believe their investment the previous year was a wise one.
Factors behind success
Each company’s ad(s) can be examined from 4 different factors to determine if it was successful, and we can use these factors to attempt to define the value of the ad. Those factors are:
- Did the ad raise buzz? (blog posts, search trends, etc.)
- Did it drive interest in information? (visitors to the site)
- Did the company prepare for the buzz and interest? (did they prepare special landing pages, behind the scenes of the ads (like Ford’s F150 commercial), etc.)
- Did the company have a call to action? (did they ask for purchase, personal info, emails, offer something)
Bob Parsons, CEO of GoDaddy, has always maintained that their Super Bowl ads paid off. In 2005, GoDaddy spent half of its entire year’s ad budget and ran a commercial during the Super Bowl that stirred a lot of controversy – and one week later their market share for domain names increased by 56%. The two video ads archived on GoDaddy’s site were deluged with over 2.6 million views, not counting YouTube and any of the other video sites displaying it as well. Over 60,000 votes were cast for their ad on FoxSports.com, earning the top ad spot. Naturally, Parsons kept running ads each year at the Super Bowl. IAG Research reported that GoDaddy’s 2007 Super Bowl ad had the highest recall of any ad during the year.
Because of the media attention our ad has received, millions of people across the country who didn’t know we existed, are now aware of GoDaddy.com
- Bob Parsons, CEO, GoDaddy.com
4 Types of Super Bowl ads
Certainly, for relatively unknown companies in the mainstream world, the Super Bowl presents a unique opportunity to raise awareness. GoDaddy and SalesGenie are two examples of previously unknown companies in the mainstream who instantly raised awareness of ordinary folks by throwing up their ad in front of almost 100 million viewers.
Other companies, already firmly established in the mainstream mindset in a certain positioning, run ads to change the way you feel about a brand. A great example of this was Hyundai’s “Think About It” campaign, focused on changing your likely perception of Hyundai as a cheap, ugly car.
The third type of ad is aimed at taking advantage of your state of mind and emotion and fusing it with an ad, to the point where it is a part of the landscape. Just as you are used to seeing hot dogs at a baseball game (you would actually feel like something is missing if they weren’t there), an ad can have the same effect when it is repeatedly shown and branded during the Super Bowl. For example, if you see Bud Light ads during every Super Bowl for several years, two things end up happening; first, you begin to associate the culture of Super Bowl with “a good cold beer”, and second, you are always being presented with the ad during a time of high emotion and high attention (which lead to better memory) .
And lastly, the fourth type of ad is often combined with one of the previous types and focuses on authority. Given that the Super Bowl is the largest event of the year, if you are advertising on it that means you are “made”, you are the “real deal”. This is an intimidation tactic for your competitors, and a “we’ve made it to the big time business” notice to prospective customers who weren’t sure about your company’s credibility.
Length of ad
After going over all of the ads and their rankings, I should note that as far as likability and recall ability, the longer the ad, the better chance it had of showing up at the top on both. The typical spot is 30 seconds, but the 60 second and 45 second spots scored disproportionately better than the rest. My best guess as to the reasoning behind this (and please add a comment if you had a different thought) is that the longer ads had more of a chance to communicate the setting, leading to a more cohesive message, and the longer ads also were simply shown for longer amounts of time (in some cases twice as long as a common 30 second spot), so one would expect that these ads have better recall, if not twice as much.
Aside from the actual ad viewers during the Super Bowl and on video sharing websites later, there are yet even more ways to squeeze out value from your ad.
a) GoDaddy posted rejected ads on their site. This way, no ad production time that they paid for was wasted – it was efficiently converted into more eye-grabbing content for entertainment hungry consumers.
b) Due to the immense press coverage and significance of the Super Bowl, your ad might be selected to win an award, such as USA Today’s Ad Meter contest, which brings in even more press. For example, in 2008′s Super Bowl, IAG Research reported FedEx’s Pigeon commercial as the most recalled ad.
c) Use a survey on your site to learn more about your customers. For example, in 2008 over 160,000 visitors to GoDaddy’s Super Bowl ad page filled out a survey.
d) Tivo actually keeps track of which ads get replayed most often. This year, the E*Trade Talking, Trading, Barfing Baby commercial was the most replayed ad, signifying a high level of interest. In fact, almost all ads had a 5-30% larger audience than the game itself, which gives credibility to the common wisdom that “most people watch the Super Bowl for the ads, not the game itself”.
Often, when two brands are fighting to obtain dominance in a category, they advertise on the Super Bowl (sometimes head to head) in the hopes of gaining enough momentum and awareness to pull ahead of the other. Netflix and Blockbuster’s struggles were a great example of this strategy.
Netflix vs. Blockbuster
A few years ago, when it was uncertain to executives in Netflix and BlockBuster offices who would win the online rental battle, they each spent millions running ads during Super Bowl to introduce their service to millions of viewers, and to try to capture growth for their service. Now that Netflix has beaten out Blockbuster Online, with 7.5 million subscribers to a paltry 3.1 million (the last available statistics), they no longer see any reason to spend exorbitantly on Super Bowl ads. Since both companies are investing heavily in movie downloads for this upcoming year, we may see some ads for that new service as they push the new product into a state of high consumer awareness.
Failure of the last mile
Too often we find advertisers who spent an enormous amount on advertising, but didn’t craft a plan of what would happen after they got people interested. This year was no different, and I found quite a few advertisers who paid a lot and worked hard to get visitors to their site, and then lost them out of confusion, or lacking the content the visitor was looking for. There were, in many cases, no landing page, no call to action, no additional content. In the cases where these existed, they were usually not prominent enough, or completely hidden without a google search.
Audi did a great job with their Truth In Engineering site, which has the consistent message and feel that the Super Bowl ad had. It invites you to learn more about the Audi R8. While Ford did put in a small web address in their ad, if you just wend to Ford’s main site (as I’m sure many did), you didn’t even see a mention of the truck, the Super Bowl, or the ad. That is a failure of the last mile.
Pay per click advertising
This year, the pay per click bidding really heated up between Super Bowl advertisers. Most advertisers were trying to draw attention even after the game to their ad (instead of a competitor’s ad) by buying up pay per click ads on Google, MSN and Yahoo search engines.
Most people don’t know that the audience for the Super Bowl is actually split evenly between males and females. This means that ads that attract both sexes will be more successful, and we can derive a formula for success. The idea is to mix something that females will say “aww, that’s so sweet” (usually a furry creature, baby, dramatic moment) to with something that males will enjoy (usually violence, toilet humor, sophomoric humor). This gives each gender something to focus on and relate to in the ad, and drives recall and liking of the ad.
It would be pretty rare that someone watches the Super Bowl alone. Usually, you watch in a group and as become tradition in America, the host holds a “Super Bowl Party”. Given that information, ads that take advantage of the quantity of people watching in any one location will succeed much better than ones that don’t take that factor into account. Take, for example, movie ads. Very few people go to see movies alone, and even fewer go to see big hits alone (usually out of embarrassment). And, how many times have we each gone to a movie, one we didn’t even want to see, purely because a friend asked us to? You’re grinning right now, because it’s happened to you before. All it takes is one person in the group that is watching saying “We’ve GOT to see that movie!”, and he has already raised the likelihood that 4-6 other people will see it as well.
Marketing messages need to match the emotional state of the people they are targeting. Super Bowl parties are filled with loud people (often drinking), lots of food, include many shouts of joy and grief, and are usually an excuse to hang out with people you don’t see every week. As such, advertising for something very serious, or very sad, is not likely to even be noticed or recalled after the event. Consider this: You don’t remember every little thing that happened to you last week, but if I ask you whether it was a good week or not, you do remember that. Say you had a good week. If I follow up and ask you whether someone insulted you during that week, chances are you won’t remember, because you are already defining that whole week simply as “good” in your brain.
Now, don’t forget to add the cost to produce an ad – up to $1 million if you want an agency.
GoDaddy as an example of cost effectiveness of placing a Super Bowl ad:
2007: GoDaddy received 0.5 million visitors day of Super Bowl (3 paid spots) @ $2.6MM each = $15.60 per visitor
2008: GoDaddy received 2 million visitors day of Super Bowl (1 paid spot) @ 2.7MM each = $1.35 per visitor
Now, if you were thinking that visitors don’t equal buyers: Melanie Schmitt, of GoDaddy, indicated that “early indications show our market share of new domain names is fast approaching 50% – up from its pre-Super Bowl mark of 42%.” That’s quite impressive, considering it is just one week later.
Clearly 2008 was a year of better return on investment for GoDaddy. It is possible that running several ads instead of one doesn’t have a high enough marginal boost in visitors to justify the additional spend.
Note: GoDaddy did experience a higher amount of visitors on the days that follow (more than 5 million visitors for 2008′s ad since Sunday, but for matters of simplicity we only analyzed the day of the Super Bowl.)
This year saw about 10 different movie ads, more than I recall viewing any past year. That usually means:
a) They found that it worked in the past; or
b) They are having a really bad year
Which brings us to the question, how do these ads do?
This is a hard question to answer, since so many of the ads were running for movies that don’t come out for a very long time. We measured the release dates for each movie ad, and found the shortest release date was 11 days from the Super Bowl, while the longest were two movies being released 145 days later. Interestingly, not a single movie ad was shown for any movies currently in the theater, which could have resulted in immediate action (i.e. – going to see the movie the next Sunday). Also, what are the odds of someone recalling a movie a whopping 145 days later? That’s almost 5 months down the road. I suppose the only way to make it stick would be to have a huge ad budget for all 5 months to make sure the viewers memory of your ad doesn’t fail during that time.
When you are expecting your movie to make over 100 million, I guess spending a few more to make sure that it has a big opening week is just “insurance”.
Lastly, not a single one of the movie ads made it into the top of the ratings for the Super Bowl ads. Isn’t that strange, considering movies have:
a) the largest budget
b) the most film to use
c) well-known actors
d) the most professional producers
It’s possible that people just aren’t in the right mood for movies during the Super Bowl, or maybe the studios are just counting on the “Quantity” principle I noted a few paragraphs up.
Avoid the taboos
When you try to be edgy and entertaining, you often straddle the line between offensive and inoffensive. Last year, GM ran an ad showing an auto assembly plant robot committing suicide because it made a single work mistake. GM wanted to show its commitment to excellent in a funny way. They failed. It looked like they were glorifying suicide. To make matters worse, this ran during the same time that GM was laying off thousands of workers – not exactly the greatest timing. The ad was pulled after people saw it on the Super Bowl and complained. This year was no different, with Vin Gupta, SalesGenie’s CEO, apologizing for two ads that came under fire as offensive. Gupta, an Indian himself, said:
“We never thought anyone would be offended,” said Mr. Gupta, who developed and wrote both commercials himself.
As I’ve said before, having several different perspectives, with at least one “extreme outsider” on your management team is important. It prevents you from doing what SalesGenie did, and turning something supposed to be positive and morphing it into a very negative force.
The use of celebrities
It seems that each year more and more celebrities find a way into the Super Bowl ads. Is this a good thing? Does it help the ad succeed? It’s hard to tell, and there is no clear answer. On the one hand, celebrities are recognized immediately and can already pass on some context to the viewer without spending additional time in the ad (which, at slightly under $100,000 per second, becomes a high priority). For example, Will Ferrell appeared in a Bud Light commercial. From what most people know about him, he’s a funny actor who is always in silly situations. See? We just saved at least 10 seconds of explanation just by showing him instead of a random unknown person.
The downside, of course, is the cost of hiring the actor, as well as a possible negative backlash from either current events involved with that actor (is it just me or do they tend to get into trouble really often?), or by people who may already have a strong negative view of that person. For instance, Will Ferrell is a polarizing character, as my focus group showed. Some people found his Bud Light commercial hilariously funny, while others were just plain disgusted and turned off by it – simply because of who he is. With a nameless actor that shouldn’t happen – it’s hard to hate someone you don’t know yet.
Each year, repeat Super Bowl advertisers are getting smarter and improving their results. This is clearly a game that you need to know the intricacies in order to succeed, and it also hinges on your ability to intertwine your company within the culture and tradition of the Super Bowl. Companies such as Coca Cola and Budweiser have succeeded, and it seems that running a Super Bowl ad was the single best move GoDaddy ever did. Additionally, each year brings more detailed plans for rolling out the Super Bowl ads, with landing pages, pay per click advertising, behind the scenes videos, and so on becoming the standard for competing for interested viewers. It is my hope that I succeeded in presenting dimensions of the Super Bowl ad economy that you haven’t considered in the past, and offered you an inside look, making you a more sophisticated Super Bowl ad viewer!