The Guarantee
February 7

Analysis: Some Super Bowl Ads Score, Others Fumble

There is no greater scrutiny that a brand faces for its marketing prowess than during the biggest U.S. sporting event of the year. Courageous brands bet big that their ad would win hearts and minds among consumers, but alas, only 40 percent of Super Bowl ads earned favorable ratings from our team of advertising professionals.

So why do brands make this gamble? Because when it pays off, it can absolutely amplify brand loyalty and revenue in a way that perhaps no other single advertising investment can.

In 2016, most brands focused on entertainment value when crafting their Super Bowl spots. After all, the country was in the throes of an election. With serious ads cluttering every media channel, the country needed some levity. Advertisers took a starkly different path this year with the tone more serious and focused on themes such as friendship, empowerment, politics and realizing your dreams. By far the most common theme woven across many of the ads was one of unity, which isn’t surprising given the fractured state of our country.

A couple of brands in particular – Budweiser and 84 Lumber – choose to address the highly charged political topic of immigration. In fact, 84 Lumber’s first script was rejected by Fox which deemed it too controversial. The brand ultimately removed imagery of a border wall in the ad that aired live during the game, with the unedited version released on the brand’s website.

Anheuser-Busch probably never imagined its founders story of immigration to the U.S. would be seen as a presidential dig. Given how long it takes to put together a high-production spot like this, work may have begun far before immigration became the center of public controversy. Politics aside, it’s the story of what’s possible when you dream big in our country and it gives us a glimpse into the entrepreneurial spirit upon which the brand was founded.

Hyundai did the unthinkable and developed their spot during the game. While it officially ran after the game ended, making it ineligible for top honors, the spot was indeed powerful. The auto maker aired the game for our troops stationed at a U.S. military base in Poland. They bought Super Bowl tickets for their families and leveraged technology to allow our troops to watch the game “with” their families. It was a truly touching moment.

It wasn’t just the ad content that was unusual this year. Advertisers made some notable strategy adjustments as well.

Snickers ran the first ever live Super Bowl ad. While it wasn’t successful, real-time ad production is likely a trend that will grow in future years.

Unexpectedly, many more brands opted to surprise viewers with their ads – not releasing so much as a teaser beforehand. It’s unexpected given the growing cost of Super Bowl air time which leaves marketers feeling compelled to extend the life of their ad by generating pre-game buzz.

Of those that did release their ads online before the game, the YouTube viewership winners were Turbo Tax with “Humpty Fail,” Budweiser with its controversial “Born the Hard Way” spot, and T-Mobile with its “Unlimited Moves” spot featuring Justin Bieber.

Super Bowl ad popularity polls are common after the big game, though popularity doesn’t always equate to effectiveness. Often, consumers can’t recall the brands associated with some of the most entertaining spots and even if they can, they may not be inspired to make a purchase.

Memphis-based RedRover Sales & Marketing Strategy’s team of advertising pros assessed this year’s crop of commercials according to what matters most: viewer connection, strength of storytelling, memorability, reinforcement of brand differentiators, likelihood viewers will remember the brand with which the ad was associated, and likelihood to drive brand affinity and sales.

Where we often see the food and beverage category winning at the Super Bowl advertising game, this year three of the top four ads were in the automotive category.

Treat – These brands were real treats to watch, making good use of their hefty Super Bowl investments:

Audi – “Daughter” – In this moving spot, a dad teaches his daughter what could be instead of limiting her to the realities of inequality present in the world. Audi has claimed a new brand territory – equal pay of its employees regardless of gender. What a powerful and memorable ad that should drive brand affinity with enough frequency.

Mercedes-Benz – “Easy Driver” – In this cheeky spot, aging rockers hang out in their favorite biker bar, though they aren’t quite up for the shenanigans of yesteryear. They prepare for a “rumble” when they spot the easy rider himself, Peter Fonda. Fonda, ever the maverick, races off to the soundtrack of “Born to be Wild” in a sleek roadster that is “built to be wild.” Way to tap into the free spirit of the Baby Boomer generation that may no longer find the Harley practical.

Wonderful Pistachios – “Ernie Gets Physical” – Ernie the elephant is running on a treadmill, to kick off his fitness regimen for the new year, as he shares a wellness tip – pistachios are a great source of protein. In Taylor Swift style, he loses his footing, breaks the treadmill and causes a scene. Great use of a mere 15 seconds to both entertain and reinforce a relevant differentiator.

Honda – “Power of Dreams” – In this star-studded ad, the yearbook photos of Tina Fey, Magic Johnson and Steve Carell come to life to share stories of how dreams really can come true. It’s not the strongest brand connection, but the ad’s memorability and viewer connection compensate.

Trash – These brands trashed their multi-million-dollar opportunities:

KFC – “Georgia Gold” – It’s difficult to convey how far off target this ad is. It’s filled with misguided humor and a confusing story line.

Febreze – “Halftime Bathroom Break” – No one wants to think about smelly bathroom visits while consuming wings and nachos. This brand is unfamiliar with situational advertising.

Snickers – “Live” – Carrying on with its “you’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, Snickers shows how easy it is to ruin a live Super Bowl commercial when you’re hungry. While it was intended to show an ironically epic fail, this cringe-worthy spot just felt awkward.

Super Bowl LI was full of surprises – from the first overtime situation in Super Bowl history, to the Patriots come-back story, to the great departure in advertising formula taken by many a brand. Only time will tell if the decisions these companies made will boost or detract from consumer affinity for their brands.

Want to watch the big game day ads again, along with their ratings? Click here.

Lori Turner-Wilson, CEO and founder of RedRover Sales & Marketing Strategy, can be reached at

A boutique agency with seasoned professionals, RedRover is the only Memphis advertising agency to integrate sales training and coaching with marketing strategy planning and execution. RedRover has a uniquely intense focus on achieving measurable results for its clientele. This Memphis ad agency’s diverse client roster represents nearly every industry vertical in greater Memphis.

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