Bad Decisions And No Results: What You Can Learn From Super Bowl Advertisers' Mistakes

The next Super Bowl only two weeks away. Already, Pepsi is running a promo asking people to take pictures of themselves and submit them for possible display during the game’s halftime show. Lincoln and Doritos have asked the crowd to create the commercials they’ll run. Budweiser will air expertly-produced spots about its history and Clydesdale horses. Some brands are hoping to make a splash by staying mum on details, like Wonderful Pistachios (they’ve leaked only that rapper Psy will be involved).

Everyone is telling us it’s a great moment in marketing. Well, everyone except one audience: consumers.

Super Bowl ads tell them nothing memorable or useful, so they react and vote…and then move on. Super Bowl advertisers don’t sell more or achieve any ownable awareness. Yet brands continue to spend many millions on the event, and then more money telling us (and themselves) why it’s great.

You can learn a lot from their mistakes. Here’s a cheat sheet on how:

First, every trend in our industry suggests that there are three broad qualities of branding that go beyond awareness — i.e. being a loud noise in the room, or car wreck on the side of the road — to deliver sales, and build brand equity:

  • Have a purpose/be relevant to a consumer need or issue
  • Communicate a brand quality that has real utility
  • Be truthful, so the content can stand the test of time/reality

These are facts. We know them because we can measure them with attributes more tangible than those found in an orgone collector, like product trial, purchase, price premium, and repeat sales. The purpose of advertising and all commercial speech, social media campaigns included, is to balance and deliver these attributes as the basis of the relationships between businesses and their customers.

Second, the constraints of the audience for the Super Bowl — it’s so broad that no self-respecting media buyer could recommend it unless your product was as ubiquitous as oxygen — and our accepted wisdom about how to use social media mean that the content brands produce for/around the event must:

  • Tell a joke or be sexy (ideally both)
  • Encourage consumers to talk about themselves
  • Provide nothing that needs to be checked or affirmed

Therefore it’s entertainment, not marketing. Every measure of success centers on how consumers feel about the medium, which can be voted upon and quipped about. Its advocates will wax poetic about audience size and time spent being entertained online, as if the Super Bowl content was the same as a new movie or pop song release.

Third, those arguments for why brands spend the money on the ads and related social campaigns don’t hold up.

Many of the well-known ones are struggling, like Anheuser-Busch, Best Buy, and PepsiCo, and the last thing they need is more awareness or to spend marketing dollars entertaining us. Conversely, the smaller ones that might crave awareness will only get it if they make a point of saying nothing relevant, useful, or true (otherwise, their ads might not win in the entertainment ratings).

I’ll laugh and cringe during the commercials two weeks from now, and maybe I’ll be surprised by a brand that figured out how to use the Super Bowl platform to do something useful. But I suspect it’ll be a cavalcade of bad decisions that deliver no results.

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