Digital TransformationStrategy & LeadershipSuper Bowl ads cost millions of dollars. Are they worth it?

Super Bowl ads cost millions of dollars. Are they worth it?

Though Super Bowl ads are guaranteed attention, they don't necessarily guarantee sales. But they can, particularly when emotion meets actionability.

Between display and search ads, and sponsored Instagram posts, studies have shown that I have seen hundreds of digital ads today. I couldn’t tell you a single one, even though many of them were probably part of Super Bowl campaigns I read about this morning. However, I could tell you what to pack to if you visit Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Poconos. If you spent the early ‘90s in the Tri-State Area, maybe you know, too. “All you have to bring is your love of everything.”

That commercial was on heavy rotation back when the resort was still called Mount Airy Lodge. I hadn’t seen the jingle in decades, though I could still recite every single word. This doesn’t surprise Ryan McConville, President and Chief Operating Officer at mobile ad network Kargo.

“Despite the billions of dollars in investment in digital platforms and ad-tech and data management platforms and 1:1 ad targeting, it still remains to be seen whether these digital ads connect emotionally or spur memory of the product,” he says. “‘Old-school’ delivery devices like TV and outdoor do a better job of instilling memory.”

Emotions run high on Super Bowl Sunday

According to the American Psychological Association, a small amount of emotional arousal can influence whether we remember something, even a few minutes later. McConville believes that TV ads are far more likely to play on that, especially during the Super Bowl. Brands bring their A game to the Big Game, when consumers not only pay attention to ads, but seek them out.

Super Bowl viewership

The lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time, Super Bowl LIII was largely considered a dud. And while ratings were the lowest in a decade, there were still more than 100 million viewers.

“With the Super Bowl, you have this fun, emotional, shared American experience. That creates halo ads that cause you to remember them, whether or not they were particularly emotional,” says McConville.

However, the ads that make the biggest splash tend to have some emotion tied to them. This Sunday, Verizon and Xbox had the largest share of voice for their ads that celebrated heroic first responders and children whose physical disabilities are a non-factor when playing video games with their friends. Xbox placed third on USA TODAY’s Ad Meter behind the NFL and Amazon whose ads tapped into a different emotion: humor.

Despite the hefty price tag — 30 seconds of ad time cost about $5 million — that makes a Super Bowl ad worth it to McConville.

“People will drop $10 million on display ads that don’t deliver any sizeable ad recall,” he says. “During the Super Bowl, you have a pinnacle sporting moment where there’s a lot of excitement around the game and massive emotional investment around the ad creative. That said, is it really crazy that brands spend all this money on Super Bowl ads when they guarantee so much memory ROI?”

Budweiser’s lost dog vs. Alexa’s lost voice

Of course, memory ROI doesn’t automatically translate to actual ROI. Case in point: The most popular ad from the most-watched Super Bowl of all time, Budweiser’s “Lost Dog” from 2015.

The ad racked up 19 million YouTube ads before it even aired on TV. However, a study that year found that for all its social media clout, “Lost Dog” didn’t translate to a brand lift.

“People think about the funniest spot, but I wonder which one does the best job of selling me,” says Nick Mangiapane, CMO of measurement and optimization platform Commerce Signals. “If you have X million YouTube views, it’s certainly awareness. But that it’s hard to drive that awareness through, did people actually buy?”

On the other hand, the most popular Super Bowl ad from last year, “Alexa Loses Her Voice,” was the most-viewed ad on YouTube for the entire year. Compared with the previous Super Bowl weekend, Amazon Echo sales increased by 300%. The perception that the device has “many uses in everyday life” also increased by 5%. The key difference, Mangiapane points out, is that Amazon’s ad was funny and related back to the product.

Bringing it back to Super Bowl LIII, he points out two different car ads.

“Hyundai’s ad was funny and there was intrigue around what was going to happen. But it was conclusively saying that you want to buy a Hyundai because of Shopper Assurance; it balanced humor and the selling benefit,” he says. “Audi’s spot was intriguing and I loved the movie Field of Dreams. But I don’t recall any messages about why you should buy an Audi.”

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