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Marketing Experts Discuss What Makes a Good Super Bowl Ad

Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest day of the year for pro football fans and marketing researchers.

For more than XXV years, the Super Bowl has become a showplace for commercials as well as football, with sponsors taking advantage of the game’s huge global audience to build their brand, expand their market share, or just plain sell more stuff.

To reach the audience and stand out from their competitors, companies have been trying to outdo each other producing more humorous, more touching, or more outrageous ads. As a result, the game has become a must-see for marketers as well as football fans.

In an informal poll of Tippie College of Business marketing faculty (people who are paid to analyze these things) and MBA marketing students (people who will be paid to analyze these things), the ads most frequently cited as memorable run the gamut from A to B: Apple, Audi, Budweiser, and Betty White.

Few brands have so reliably turned out memorable Super Bowl commercials as Budweiser. Starting with Spuds Mackenzie in the 1980s, Bud has made heroes of frogs and lizards, created a brief but explosive catch phrase (“whazzuuup!”), and for a time made people pay attention to an annual football game played by cartoon bottles wearing helmets. The company has also used its own iconic Clydesdales to memorable effect playing football in a pasture or engaged in a Rocky-style training regimen.

"Budweiser always has great Super Bowl commercials,” said Scott Marsh, a first-year MBA marketing student. “They generally have little to do with the positioning of the brand within the market.”

Betty White is a more recent phenomenon. Last year’s Snickers commercial, which featured White telling a fellow playground football player “that’s not what your girlfriend said,” turned the sitcom queen in her dotage into a pop culture phenomenon.

“It combines a great slogan with a well-recognized and beloved television icon making it one of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of recent years," said Kelly Peacock, a first-year MBA student and Graduate Marketing Association (GMA) president.

Two of Audi’s recent commercials were also favorites: the Green Police ad that gently spoofs the environmental movement while introducing the company's clean diesel engine, and a parody of the scene from “The Godfather” in which the front end of a Mercedes replaces a horse’s head in bed.

“This tells ‘old luxury’ that it’s been put on notice,” said Riley Lind, a first-year MBA student. “It does a good job adding in humor while still sending a strong message to their competitors.”

Of course, no discussion of Super Bowl commercials is complete without a reference to Apple’s Big Brother spot from 1984, the first time a company spent big money on a high-profile commercial specifically designed for the Super Bowl. The ad, directed by Ridley Scott, introduced the Macintosh as a tool to liberate the working masses from the oppressive PC.

“Many consider it the greatest ad of all time,” said John Murry, professor of marketing.

Other ads cited as memorable include spots by FedEx (caveman tries sending parcel by tying it to a pterodactyl’s leg), Google (tracing a relationship from its beginning to parenthood through Google searches), and the now-ubiquitous E*Trade baby.

But Super Bowl exposure can backfire on a company, with an ad making all the wrong impressions. Marketing professor Lopo Rego said that with such a huge audience cutting across most every demographic group, advertisers have to be careful their spot doesn’t accidentally upset someone.

“With so many eyeballs, it’s difficult to know your demographics so it’s hard to customize a message,” he said. “You run the risk of offending someone.”

An example is the series of ads from that rely increasingly on sexualized imagery and seem to be getting less popular with the game’s general audience.

“I had one student who uses Go Daddy for his small business web site, was very pleased with their service, but is embarrassed to admit it because he thought their ads were in such poor taste,” said marketing professor Sheila Goins.

On top of that, “funny” or “memorable” or “expensive” doesn’t always mean “effective.” Marketing lecturer Rob Rouwenhorst points to the 2003 Reebok commercial with Terry Tate, office linebacker, that scored high marks for its creativity and humor. However, while people remembered the ad, few of them remembered the brand behind it and Reebok received little financial benefit for its creativity and investment.

“Perhaps indicative of Reebok's assessment, their chief marketing officer resigned several months after the ad ran,” said Rouwenhorst, who is also director of Tippie’s Undergraduate Marketing Institute. “So while laughter is great, companies want to see a boost in sales.”

Because ultimately, sales are what commercials are all about.

“If the ad doesn’t lead to a viewer taking action, then it’s money thrown out the window,” said Rego.

(Post-Super Bowl note: See how this year's ads were rated by Tippie MBA students.)

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