Ads Starring CEOs: What Makes Winners, Losers?

Jim-Koch-TV ads featuring CEOs continue to be fairly rare. That’s in no small part because advertising professionals view them as risky -- potentially either grand slams or strikeouts – with the CEO’s reputation, as well as the company’s, riding on the outcome.

What’s the reality? According to a new study from Ace Metrix, CEO-starring ads actually perform better, on average, than other ads.

Among the 13,000+ TV ads assessed by Ace through consumer surveys and proprietary scoring methods since January 2009, Ace’s database showed just 76 CEO-starring ads, spanning 12 categories. 

The average ad-effectiveness Ace Score -- calculated based on measuring component scores for “persuasion,” “watchability,” “desire,” “relevance,” “change,” “attention,” “information” and “likeability” –- was 556 for CEO ads and 512 for other ads. (Ace Scores and component scores range from 1 to 950; the median scores fall around 535.) 



CEO ads also performed at least somewhat better than other ads, on average, on each of the eight components. In particular, CEO ads tended to score considerably higher on desire (the extent to which viewers want a product/service); relevance (how well they relate to the ad’s message); and information (their perception that they learned something new from the ad). 

Moreover, Ace found these patterns holding across gender and age groups. However, Ace is quick to stress that not all CEO ads are effective. 

Winners: Papa John’s, Samuel Adams

The standouts on the positive side were Papa John’s ads featuring CEO John Schnatter, and The Boston Beer Company’s ads for Samuel Adams and Sam Adams Light, featuring CEO Jim Koch.

Ace Metrix tested 47 Papa John’s ads featuring Schnatter, and seven without him. The average score for ads with Schnatter (over 580) was well above the average for all ads, and nearly tied for the top of pizza-category ads with Pizza Hut and Domino’s. Those without Schnatter scored 60 points lower, putting them below the all-ads average.

Papa John’s ads, 87% of which feature Schnatter, also show significantly less variation in performance than its competitors’ ads. Papa John’s ads “rarely miss the mark, do not alienate, and generally yield predictable outcomes,” notes the report. 

(Interestingly, by the way, more than three-quarters of all 76 ads featuring CEOs were from the restaurants and QSR categories.)

All 10 Samuel Adams/Sam Adams Light ads tested by Ace featured Koch.

Samuel Adams’ average score of 558 is 62 points above the average for the beer category, and more than 25 points above the average for the next-best-performing brand, Miller High Life (496). It also eclipses industry giants Budweiser (486) and Bud Light (463). Samuel Adams’ ads also show strong consistency in performance, compared to most competitors’. 

The ads for Sam Adams Light, with an average Ace Score close to 450, rank in the top 20 among all beer-brand ads tested. 

Losers: Sprint, Coldwell 

The five worst-performing ads featuring CEOs were: 

  • KFC’s ad featuring Roger Eaton apologizing for KFC’s not being able to honor coupons for free chicken (Ace Score: 368);
  • Scotttrade’s “total access for every trader” ad featuring Rodger Riney (469);
  • Sprint’s “free guarantee” ad featuring Dan Hesse (471);
  • Coldwell Banker’s “home listing report” ad featuring Jim Gillespie (474); and
  • Bush’s’ “Jay and Duke use Facebook” ad featuring Jay Bush, and his dog Duke (474).

Ace Metrix suggests that with KFC, the negative message being delivered, rather than the ability of Eaton or the ad to connect with consumers, was largely responsible for its low score.

The researchers also point out that Scottrade’s Riney played only a “nominal role” in that TV spot, and that “it’s hard to blame Jay Bush’s personality” for the Bush ad’s low score, since he never spoke during the spot.

However, “the other CEOs on the worst-performing list are not so easily forgiven,” Ace observes. 

Sprint’s Hesse—who had expressed a fear of boring viewers in a Wall Street Journal article that ran two years before this spot aired—“was not off-base with his concern,” notes the report: 15% of viewers who left open-ended comments about the spot used at least one of the words “boring,” “tedious,” “dull” or “uninteresting.” 

Likewise, Coldwell’s Gillespie drew a “boring” comment from 14% of viewers who offered comments.

So What Makes the Difference?

Generally, the most effective CEO ads deliver direct, trust-inspiring and informative messages that grab viewers’ attention and deliver high information, relevance and desire scores, reports Ace Metrix.

Not surprisingly, however, the CEO’s perceived persona appears to be the critical make-or-break for these ads.

Consumers “still respect the ‘guy’ on top, and are looking for the CEO to be interesting, relevant, and know what [they want]” – and the ads that work best are distinguished most of all by the CEO being perceived as “genuine and authentic,” according to the report.

“Personal charisma and the ability to communicate authenticity and relevance vary widely” among CEOs…make sure that yours is up to the task,” advises Ace Metrix.

Another factor is consistency or commitment to the CEO-ad approach.

Given that some CEO-starring ads performed poorly, advertising professionals’ concern about riskiness has some validity (although again, these generally performed better than other ads). 

However, given that no brands other than Papa John’s and Samuel Adams “fully committed” to “the CEO-as-front-man strategy” – instead including only a few CEO ads within their overall portfolios of ads over the three years – Ace Metrix notes that concern about viewers becoming bored with a CEO is something of a chicken-or-egg question:

“Is the ad boring because the CEO fails to engage viewers, or does the method of infrequently using the CEO create an awkward, contrived context that stacks the deck against ad effectiveness? Likewise, do brands that stay the course [with CEO ads] benefit from this, or did they stay the course because they saw immediate benefits from the ‘CEO-as-front-man’ strategy?”

Either way, the report argues that “many of the CEO spots that failed could have been prevented by testing the message and the ads themselves prior to rolling them out. “Let the data decide—if the ads perform poorly, find another way to get the message across,” Ace Metrix advises.

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