Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why Super Bowl Ads Said More About Marketing Than About Brands, Part I

I know it's a little late for a blog post about Super Bowl advertising. Most bloggers and media outlets did their Monday morning ad execing (the advertising equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking) more than a week ago, but sometimes it takes a little time for the lessons to reveal themselves amid the noise and spin. This is the first of a two-part series on why this year's Super Bowl ads said more about the state of marketing than about the brands advertised.

As I read all the hype and attention of the Super Bowl ads, it seemed evident that the way consumers and the media evaluate advertising is all wrong. That, in and of itself, isn't really a problem, but when marketers and ad agencies start buying into the super wrong Super Bowl ad analysis, brands and the discipline of marketing suffer.

Like everyone else, I hunkered down to watch the big game as much to enjoy the ads as to see football. And like everyone else, I gathered around the metaphorical water cooler the following day to trade observations about the "best ads." This sort of attention and Word of Mouth (WOM) is exactly what marketers want when they invest in the most expensive ad time of the year, but what is this chatter worth to them? I liked the hilarious Doritos ads and praised their UGC (User-Generated Content) source, but I haven't had an urge to find a bag of the snacks; and I abhorred the offensive and meaningless GoDaddy's ads, yet I visited their site for a WHOIS search this past week.

The fact consumers evaluate and rate Super Bowl ads as if they're talking about competing sitcom pilots in a new TV season isn't lost on the news media, so they've jumped on the advertising-as-entertainment bandwagon. The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter, which reports on "real-time consumer testing of how much (consumers) liked the ads as they aired," is tremendously popular. Check out the Quantcast chart below--through a hotly contested presidential election, traffic to was steady, but the week of the Super Bowl saw visits to the site rise by 300 to 400 percent!

Ad agencies hang on the USA Today Ad Meter results like Hollywood moguls awaiting opening weekend box office takes, and they use the outcome for bragging rights. Less than a week after the Super Bowl, Omnicom issued a press release announcing it had "captured seven of the top 10 spots, including five of the top six, in the Super Bowl Ad Meter conducted by USA Today."

I suppose one can't blame Omnicom for giving into the temptation to brag about these results, but is there really a reason to brag? It strikes me as being akin to a horse owner issuing a press release crowing that its horse was voted the prettiest in the Kentucky Derby field; that's great, but did the horse win the race?

Is Omnicom in the entertainment or the marketing business? Do their clients want popular, likable ads or persuasive, effective ads? If ad popularity is what Omnicom's clients wanted, then they are to be congratulated for achieving goals. We can surmise, however, that in this economy with profits plummeting and marketing budgets under extreme pressure, the objective of these expensive ads and exorbitant media buys was to increase purchase intent and sell more product, not to amuse viewers.

While likability is a great attribute for entertainment--for example, likable TV shows garner higher ratings and earn more ad dollars--how exactly does likability benefit advertisers? The logic is that a likable ad will stick in the brain, impart some positive emotional attributes to the brand, and be sought out, viewed, and shared online. Certainly in an age of ad skipping by DVR viewers, you can't fault marketers for wanting their ads seen, but likability is like a key to the door of consumer's attention--once you've opened that door, failing to walk in and leverage the attention you've earned is a squandered opportunity (and a very costly mistake).

Twenty-five years ago, a very likable ad for Wendy's became a pop culture phenomenon when Clara Peller demanded, "Where's the beef?" The ad became so popular that presidential candidate Walter Mondale famously used the catchphrase to ridicule his opponent at a debate, but this ad didn't stop at likability--it used that attention it earned to say something about Wendy's in relation to its competition. Consumers considered the quality of the beef and size of the burgers they ate, and the outcome was an increase in Wendy's market share. That's likability that matters!

Did any of the most popular Super Bowl ads change consumers' perception of the brands advertised? We don't know because the USA Today Ad Meter doesn't tell us, but there is evidence of how little likability matters in advertising.

Look at the bottom of the Ad Meter results--way, way at the bottom. Two of the bottom four Super Bowl ads were for Hyundai. One ad suggested Hyundai's competitors were jealous that the Hyundai Genesis was named the North American Car of the Year, and the second ad promoted the Hyundai Assurance program, which permits consumers to return their new car without penalty in the event of layoff or disability.

Those were some seriously unlikable ads, so clearly they failed, right? Not so fast. The International Herald Tribune, in an article entitled, "Hyundai grows by offering buyers value, assurance," notes that "Hyundai Motor Co.'s sales rose 14 percent last month, the envy of an industry that saw U.S. sales overall fall 37 percent from a year earlier."

So, who would you rather be? Budweiser with two of the top five most popular ads on the USA Today Ad Meter or Hyundai bucking the economic trends by increasing sales and profits in one of the hardest-hit industries by the recession? And which agency has earned the bigger bragging rights--the one with "seven of the top 10 spots" in the Ad Meter, or Goodby, Silverstein & Partners who is driving effective consideration for their Hyundai client?


Chat Blanc said...

AMEN!! As a fellow marketer I couldn't agree more.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Chat! I always appreciate feedback, especially the supportive kind!

Anonymous said...

Great post! Any time I hear about the US Today Ad Meter rankings I am reminded of the story from 2007 where CareerBuilder fired its creative agency Cramer-Krasselt after it failed to break the Top 10 of the Ad Meter ranks...after which a C-K memo was leaked in which its CEO told the client to "f*ck off." At the time, C-K had helped CareerBuilder become the #1 job posting web site, which suggests CareerBuilder (oddly) was more interested in ad likeability than in business results. The poetic justice for C-K was that Porsche hired them shortly after because of their creative convictions.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Cullen. I really appreciate your input, and I love the C-K/CareerBuilder story!