Business and Ethics

Grading the Ads

Written by Mike Thee

February 12, 2019

Matt Isaac, associate professor of marketing in the Albers School

Image credit: Steve Babuljak

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Marketing professor analyzes this year’s Super Bowl commercials.

Any other day of the year, they are muted, marginalized, abandoned, even cursed. But on the day of the Super Bowl, commercials are nearly—and for some, equally—as important as the game itself. And with what many considered a snooze-fest of a game as this year’s main event, the ads commanded perhaps an even more rapt audience than usual as viewers searched for any oasis of entertainment they could find.

Matt Isaac, associate professor of marketing in the Albers School of Business and Economics, studies Super Bowl commercials and for the past six years, he’s given a post-mortem on which ads “kill” and which flop.

His analysis is based on a strategic framework called ADPLAN, which is an acronym for Attention; Distinction; Positioning; Linkage; Amplification; and Net Equity. In general, successful Super Bowl ads perform reasonably well in each of these categories and excel in at least one or two, Isaac said.

For “attention,” he showed the Planters Super Bowl ad, which included, among other elements, a giant peanut car speeding through a city, making it “more visually arresting” than a Burger King spot featuring Andy Warhol eating a hamburger. Of the latter, Isaac said, “The general consensus was it didn’t get viewers to stop and pay attention.”

For “distinction,” Isaac reviewed an ad for Bubly featuring Michael Bublé—which, if you didn’t see, you can easily imagine, played off the differing pronunciations of the drink (BUB-lee) and the singer-songwriter (BOO-blay). Isaac also showed a commercial for Sprint featuring former athlete Bo Jackson. The more distinctive Bubly spot, which would be impossible for competitors to imitate, easily vanquished the offering from Sprint, which many regarded as cliché.

Then there’s “positioning,” which refers to a brand’s point-of-difference and Isaac says is usually the most important factor in a commercial’s success. Pepsi fared well in this category with an ad challenging the soft drink’s perceived second-place status vis-à-vis Coke, while Bud Light provided perhaps the most striking example of positioning with a spot emphasizing that its beer does not contain corn syrup. The company even went so far as to call out by name its corn-syrup-using competitors, which Isaac pointed out, you don’t often see from a market leader. Yet with its market share slipping, Isaac continued, executives at Bud Light may have felt compelled to be more aggressive in order to differentiate their brand from up-and-coming competitors.

“Linkage” is key, too—who or what is being advertised should be pretty clear throughout the entire spot. Given that a 30-second Super Bowl commercial cost advertisers over $5 million dollars this year, you don’t want to wait too long to reveal your brand. An Amazon spot for Alexa, which humorously included a series of ill-fated attempts to expand the product’s voice-activated features, did well on this count, he said.

As for “amplification,” Isaac said this refers to whether you’ll still be thinking about and ruminating on the ad long after you’ve seen it. Amplification can be negative instead of positive. he said, pointing to Mint Mobile’s “chunky milk” commercial, which many wish they could un-see.

And then there’s “net equity”—which goes to whether the ad fits into your long-term brand strategy and “builds on what you’ve been doing for years,” said Isaac. A series of T-Mobile commercials (one which aired during each quarter of the Super Bowl) was one example Isaac highlighted because each ad had a similar look-and-feel that emphasized the color pink and also aligned with prior T-Mobile marketing campaigns.

So what was the best ad from this year’s Super Bowl? In the minds of many, including Isaac, it was Microsoft’s “When everybody plays, we all win” commercial, a moving ad for the Xbox adaptive controller for kids with disabilities.

For those ads that didn’t quite make the grade, as is true for all teams not named the Patriots, there’s always next year…

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