In Super Bowl Ads, Celebrities Often Don't Cut It

The dubious idea that celebrity endorsers can move product gets even shakier when it comes to the Super Bowl. At $5 million a pop this year and a wide audience that extends from the game to the Internet, advertisers can’t rely on star power alone.

And yet…

Nielsen biometric research going back to the 2008 Super Bowl reveals that only a third of the ads featuring celebs either on screen or as voice overs get above average scores from viewers hooked up to gauge their emotional reactions.

But everybody wants that edge.  And so, year after year, there they are. This year, Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen team up for a Bud Light ad; Alec Baldwin, Kevin Hart, Ryan Reynolds and Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler and even 80s half-hearthrob Scott Baio will be featured, along with many, many  others. Nielsen says about 20% of all Super Bowls feature some celebrity involvement.

It is (mostly) always thus: Last year there were 19 celebs. The year before 20. And from 2008 through 2013, there were between eight (in 2009) or and 16 in (2010).

The fact that Super Bowl ads now end up online for days before the game gives a leg up to advertisers who use celebs in their ads. Dr. Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist for Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience explains that Nielsen picks out one particular aspect of game day commercials to study with subjects--from 60 to 100--the research scientist gets together every year to watch the game. (Nielsen feeds them and they can have a beer--one per quarter, he says.)

“Advertisers are always looking for a hook, “ Marci explains. “Celebrities can bring instant attention and create a ‘halo effect’ for the product.”  The opposite can be true, too. Kim Kardashian’s ad for T-Mobile in last Super Bowl, memorably, brought that mobile carrier a lot of grief.

Harvard-trained (and a faculty member), Marci founded Innerscope Research, and is a pioneer in social and consumer research. Nielsen acquired the company last year. 

He notes that all of the Super Bowl commercials were first put online in 2008--on this thing called MySpace. But the total number of people who saw or shared them back then was surpassed by people who shared ads on just the Saturday before last year’s Super Bowl.

“That raises the bar for advertisers considerably,” he says. “Online extends the advertising experience.”  

But celebrities alone just don’t cut it. The idea behind the commercial is vital, just like in the movies business where many of these celebs got famous to start with).

Marci says he would warn advertisers to make sure the celebrity doesn’t overwhelm the product, something he said happened with the 2014 Super Bowl commercial featuring a fetching--extremely fetching--Scarlett Johansson. She did her pitch,  and then vamped seductively for the camera figuring, she said in the spot, that would help it go viral.

But when she turns on the flirt, the Nielsen analysis says, “she departs from the product and its benefits – and turns on the sex appeal. And engagement plummets and never reaches a moderately high level.”

Marci’s study said that commercial’s engagement rate was “considerably below average and among the very lowest in the study.”

On the other hand, Best Buy’s 2013 Super Bowl spot with Amy Poehler had it all going on: The report says,  “In this case, the advertiser created a fast-paced ad starring the charmingly flirtatious Amy Poehler and her double-entendre-infused monologue (and sex, tastefully done is also a proven element of effective advertising).

“Best Buy in a number of ways represents the most effective use of a celebrity: first, by drawing  attention to the screen; second by maintaining attention through humorous banter; and, third, by focusing her attention and interest on the advertiser and its benefits to the consumer.”

As viewers watch the game, Marci measures heart rates, respiratory function and skin conductivity and uses a motion sensor--it measures when viewers, literally this time, lean in to watch. The people chosen to watch are kind of middlin’ fans--not rabid and not people who would rather be at the opera.

And,  Marci suggests, results can matter depending on which team is winning and how lopsided the score gets. “Until the last few years, these games used to be blow-outs, so much so that advertisers paid more to have their commercials on in the first half.” With a series of thrilling-to-the-end games since then, he says, that first half-second half price difference has all but disappeared.

1 comment about "In Super Bowl Ads, Celebrities Often Don't Cut It".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, February 3, 2016 at 4:55 p.m.

    I'll have to read through this article again, since nowhere in the cloudy mist of scientific research results involving heart-rates and sweaty brows did I see a single reference to the only result that matters; ... how many of the advertiser's widgets were sold as a direct result of the buyer watching those ads?  Or is that way too simple-minded?

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