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SuperBowl Ads Learnings – Conversation Hacks That Didn’t Work!

72 hours after the big game, dust has settled on this year’s crop of the most expensive ads on American TV. At $3 million a 30 seconds pop and 111 million viewers this year, the SuperBowl has always been the most coveted advertising stage.

As TBWA\CHIAT\DAY creative head Rob Schwartz (@schwartzie14) put it: “The $3M brands spend on SuperBowl spots isn’t only for the spots. It’s the price a brand pays to be in the cultural conversation.

And boy, did everybody try to hack that conversation!

From VW seeding The Force, to Groupon building up expectations for their first ever TV commercial, the SuperBowl of Ads started well before Sunday. Yes, what made this year special was the promise of the most social and viral Superbowl ever.

DID IT WORK?

Arguably, no.

Only four out of sixty-one spots managed to make it to the top 100 most shared videos of the past seven days (two from Volkswagen, Chrysler, and Doritos). Putting things in perspective, it means Charlie Bit My Finger was still more viral in the past week than 57/61 Superbowl ads. And some the ads that tried the hardest to become the talk-of-town, actually ranked at the bottom of the USA Today Ad Meter.

Now, I’m sure we’ll read accounts of how well some commercials actually drove sales and other business metrics despite not winning in the polls. This will be great: it’s what advertising is for, really.

But the reason advertisers fork out millions to be on the Superbowl, is to go beyond ordinary advertising benefits: to be in the conversation, build legendary status, earn epic creative kudos. All things measured by the Ad Meter and viral charts. So what went wrong here?

A disclaimer before I continue – as you know this blog reflects my own thoughts, not any opinions of my employer, PepsiCo. Still, I’ll refrain from making any comments on the PepsiCo SuperBowl line-up (which I took no direct part in), or ads by our competitors.

Here we go.

5 CONVERSATION HACKS THAT FAILED

1. Supersize My Spend
If you think $3mm is too much, consider Chrysler.
With the first ever two minutes spot, Hollywood production values and celebrity cast Eminem, the bill got closer to $20mm, a fact the auto-maker leaked in hopes of building up anticipation for the most expensive Superbowl ad ever. Only #44 in the ranking, “Imported from Detroit” was not exactly a crowd pleaser. Yes, 46,000 social shares tell the story of an ad that found a core of true fans, but it’s light years behind the real viral champion of 2011, which did not cost that much (VW The Force with 700,000+ shares).

Learning: “We stand up for Detroit and the American worker” is a fantastic brand message. It stands for something. But did it need that splurge? ”Biggest spender” isn’t a story the public cares about.

2. Shocking!
Controversy is often a great conversation starter. But controversy for controvery’s sake, created out of thin air, is a poor creative device. Groupon, your Tibet fish curry joke was not that funny… but it was just insensitive enough to rank you #41, and earn you over 80% dislikes on YouTube, thank you very much.

Learning: getting a new brand out calls for some risk-taking. But alienating the majority to sell coupons does not strike as a winning strategy.

3. Too Sexy For That Screen
For heaven’s sake, Skechers and Go Daddy, I had my 5 year old watching when you started flashing Kim Kardashian’s curves, and zooming on Joan Rivers’ rack. Very. Bad. Idea. Other watchers agree and ranked you #47 and #52 respectively.

Learning: a basic here – know your audience. NSFW also applies to the family room.

4. The Whatever Wars
As passionate as I am with Cola Wars and PCs vs. Macs, I bet no-one slapped hands on their knees exclaiming “up yours, Apple!”, watching this Samsung tablet launch film. Oops , I mean Motorola (whatever). No one outside Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley gets the white earbuds and 1984 clever references to the Apple brand. Xoom rank? #46.

Learning – as much as we care about rivalries with such and such brand, no one else really does. Consumers want to hear what’s in it for them.

5. Bieber Fever
Who would have thought using Justin Bieber (Best Buy) wasn’t enough to create an instant hit? or Eminem. or Kim Kardashian. or Will.I.Am. Aren’t these the modern demi-gods of social media and sharing? Only Gaga was missing from that line-up. All bottom of the AdMeter ranking.

Learning: celebrity does not trump ideas. Never did, never will.

THE ONE HACK THAT WORKED (SADLY)

6. Soooo cute
Take a look at the top of the Ad Meter, and what do you see? Not the epic mission statement of “1984″ (Apple), or ferocious humor of  “When I Grow Up” (Monster.com). No. Cutesy little 5 year olds, dogs and CGI beetles. Yep’, we’re in rollerbabies world now, where “cute” is the open sesame of all things shared and viral. From Volkwagen’s Mini Vader to Bridgestone’s Beaver and even Bud Light’s Dogs Party, it seems the path to SuperBowl XLV success was not funny, controversial, or sexy… it was sugar-coated nice, cuddly and cute. Ouch, that hurt.

That said, Volkswagen got a massive viral hit with The Force, but… what car was it for? Selling what? Remote ignition?… remind me – what’s the unique benefit here?

Humm… Maybe the learning is to forget “viral” as the holy grail of advertising, even during the SuperBowl, and go back to good old “does it say what it’s supposed to and will it drive sales for my business?”

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  • http://twitter.com/smartel Sylvain Martel

    Great post Tom.

    But what’s the problem with the VW ad really? Unique benefit ? That’s pure awareness here. New car is coming shortly at VW dealerships… You may be don’t remember the model. But you all remember it’s a VW. And it’s a family car. Cause everybody’s subconscient has seen the kid and the nice couple in that commercial.

    Anyhow, Superbowl or not, it’s never easy to get into the conversation.

    SM

    • Anonymous

      Yes, you are right – that’s what they were shooting for. Still, can’t think an ad for a car that sells a remote, and actually does not show much on the car itself, as a car great ad.
      It’s a great STORY, no doubt about that… but will it really translate into advertising benefits for VW?
      Emotional rub-off and sympathy, yes. Maybe that’s really what they were after here :-)
      Tom

  • http://twitter.com/solete Anne S.

    I was pretty disappointed by the ads this year. As hard as some tried, most weren’t clever or beyond ordinary advertising. Car overload (!) and not enough laughs or substance. Did enjoy Chrysler’s ad, not sure it really needed Eminem though.

    • Anonymous

      I quite agree with all of your points, Anne.
      And Chrysler could have made their point in one minute, without Eminem, saving at least half the budget.
      Thanks for commenting!
      Tom

      • http://twitter.com/smartel Sylvain Martel

        Well Eminem being from Detroit, it has always played a very important role in his own trademark during his entire career, i really do think he had his place in this very Detroit related concept.

        Was this the right concept ? Can’t tell for sure. But i understand why they went that direction and even if yes it would have been possible to be done it in 1 minute, i dont think it’d have had the same impact without Eminem.

        • http://twitter.com/skypulsemedia Howie at Sky Pulse Media

          I agree Sylvain but M&M is polarizing. I don’t like him personally. I actually am refusing to buy Lipton until next Superbowl because they used him. It is always risky when you use a celebrity that if significant amounts of people dislike that person it could have a back lash.

          Plus Chrysler is now Italianio! =)

  • http://twitter.com/Ken_Rosen Ken Rosen

    Tom,
    Should have known you’d be one to put the trip-ups in context (and thanks for the embedded videos since I had to remind myself of half the ads). I think you’re dead on that this year’s ads fell down on both the critical (achieving a corporate goals) and the superficial (creating a memorable blockbuster to simply raise awareness).

    Since the VW ad did the best on being memorable, it makes me wonder more about whether they achieved anything. For me, as viewer and market segment, they missed in exactly the way you mention: they didn’t promote a unique benefit and, by not doing that, they didn’t even successfully connect the ad to their own brand. All would remember the ad is for a car, but for VW?

    On the other hand, I was intrigued by Penelope Trunk’s post (you might have even forwarded it) dissecting the ad as targeting Gen X (http://bit.ly/h9qe3D ). Sure I didn’t relate, but I’m not in that group. I’m always telling clients that to speak effectively to some people, you have to accept you are NOT going to speak to others. Of course, the opposite isn’t true: just because you are not speaking to some group, that doesn’t mean you nailed it with another!

    But for a moment, let’s accept Penelope’s premise that VW wants to speak to a Gen X committed to family, getting home from work early, and stay-at-home moms. If that’s true, then perhaps they think the market needs an “Ultimate Family Machine.” And if THAT is true, the question is execution. While BMW put their original version of that phrase in your face in every use, seems like someone at the VW agency decided the subtle approach would work better. My take is…it didn’t.

    Cheers, Ken

    Ken Rosen
    Performance Works
    http://www.PerTalks.com

  • http://twitter.com/BillSpink Bill Spink

    Tom – once again, enjoyed another of your posts. As the auto ads are getting some play here I’ll go there, too…the VW ad was playful, cute and memorable. But agree with the “so what” discussion as to the benefit. Is their issue that people don’t think VW’s are family cars? The Audi spot – featuring the upscale prison – took on their basic positioning vs traditional luxury, and made me laugh at some of the bits along the way. The Chevy ad – ending with the schoolteacher – reinforced their franchise with America in a fun way. …Not sure exactly where VW was going.
    As for the more fit and lil’er Kim K – agree. That was what I’d call some attractive video, but too sultry with the wife and daughter in the room. On the other hand—wonder if the intended audience demo typically isn’t’ watching football with the wife and daughter?

    • Anonymous

      The SuperBowl is probable THE game of the year that families watch together no? At least because half the audience is watching for the ads and half-game show. Thanks for coming and commenting, Bill!
      Tom

  • Sergeyt

    so cute is a new “black”.
    I see you point on cute, but on the other hand it looks like when you have some many ads competing for most expensive, provocative, biggest on celebrity, the winning formula is very human – to get some emotional response which will ignite the conversation… or VW in this case.

  • http://twitter.com/skypulsemedia Howie at Sky Pulse Media

    HAHA! Tom I wrote about something similar on Tuesday discussing the false sentiment numbers from the Brandbowl and Mediacurves.
    I agree with all your reviews here. I like to tell Ad-people if you want to make a great commercial that I enjoy watching over and over, and your Brand wants to spend money on me watching, even though I have zero today or tomorrow thoughts of buying your product, go right ahead.

    And Schwartzie (whom I disagree with him on the conversation point completely but like him immensely) might view the negative feelings on pepsi max that was physical assault wasn’t funny, as worthwhile chatter. While I doubt it will impact sales because I myself love diet pepsi (seriously) I won’t buy less because of not enjoying seeing someone hit by soda cans.

    Aside for very strategic reasons: New Product Launch or you finally want your name nationally known (Groupon good idea bad spots) I view it only as a pay back for the advertising onslaught only. I want pepsi to entertain me in return for seeing so much advertising all year. In fact if you do it with zero interest in sales and just to be fun I will thank you. But does that make it a good business decision?

    BTW that Chrysler spot was horrible. If cars are ugly or fall apart a commercial will not change that fact!

  • http://twitter.com/lefreddie Freddie Winckler

    The S word on your blog, good brand directions I will call it now. I think the biggest point to me is tha tof geographies where yes, there are huge differences.
    One thing I’d like to point out though. I am always amazed at the amount of controversy some ads create, or some images create. Not that long ago, a few centuries that is, naked bodies were exposed in the streets, in fact they still are on walls of palaces, and in most museums. Think of the shock at the time when no bodies were shown contrary to now, and when the church was governing. But bodies, beautiful bodies were not consiered something to hide, something shoking. Statues od David, a colossal naked man, ancient greek divinities. But give that a try today and you are banned ,and chased.
    I personnaly would like to do that with the people that inflict on us bad, horrible, ugly advertising and images, architects who build monstrosities with no art or cultural attempt that do not stand the test of 10 years.
    Here is a post (in french sorry) that I did on that subject after a mis sixty ad was banned http://lefreddie.posterous.com/doit-on-censurer-car-glass-ou-miss-sixty

  • http://twitter.com/lefreddie Freddie Winckler

    But what’s wrong with cute? I think in fact this year’s ads (or tose I’ve seen) are very reflective of the world we’re in, or in fact the world we’ve left…
    Cute works? Yes… is it bad? Well after receiving a lot of banging on the head, I think we all deserve a little cute-ness. In fact I was shocked during my visit in NYC a week ago how much everything screams ‘we need to be refreshed!’. Up to the socks I bought called happy socks, you will have seen these. And to be honest ‘cute’ has given us a lot of great campaigns: fight for kisses that I did in Paris, Evian. But what’s nice with this commercial is that it’s not just cute, it has a sense of humour…

    On the total other end of the spectrum, Chrysler is incredible as well. Imported from Detroit a thought I love. Although I find the ad a little(…) cringy, I’m sure it resonates in the hearts of Americans, and the people involved with Chrysler. A little pride after a good beating is sometimes very beneficial. As for Eminem, he’s from there: “we’re not from sin city, not even from the widy city. This is the motorcity, and this is what we do”. A little of ‘reports of my death were greatly exaggerated’. I have to say I am not a lover of American cars, that Detroit isn’t my idea of people who could build anyhthing I’d want to have. But hey seeing them so upfront, so passionate about hard industry, turning prejudices on their heads, gives me great sympathy for them.

    Sympathy for the devil? Probably, but hey isn’t that cute!

    • Anonymous

      I agree with your second paragraph wholeheartedly – Imported from Detroit is great. How the $20 million execution fits with the situation of a city that is pretty much dying economically… is a different question though. My issue here is with the splurge, not the idea.
      Tom

  • Michael Aidan

    Ce blog est ENORME et le guy qui le tient est One of the sharpest knives i know.
    From someone from the rollerbabies world….

    • Anonymous

      Oulala, incroyable!
      A Michael Aidan comment… and I missed it while I was away, inexcusable!!!
      Comment ca va sinon?