Cymfony, a TNS Media Intelligence company in Boston, tracked the audience engagement levels and returns-on-investment of last year's Super Bowl ads, and discovered that some marketers really know how to make the most of the media spotlight. For one thing, stealth is a lousy strategy: The more marketers plug their ads in advance of the game, the better, in terms of generating pre- and post-game coverage. And that turns out to be true in both conventional media and on such social media sites as YouTube and MySpace.
Cymfony devised a volume index score, comparing the total volume of coverage and discussion of Super Bowl advertisers to all advertisers. Marketers that announced more than two weeks before had a volume index score of 203, twice that of a typical advertiser.
Advertisers that tipped their hands in the two-week pre-game period scored 176. And those that either announced their ad plans on Super Bowl weekend or just let the ads speak for themselves during the game had a volume index of just 18, "substantially below the median."
And advertisers who revealed their actual ad online before the game, Cymfony reports, "generated 4.3 times greater post-game coverage than the average of the companies that only announced their participation."
That buzz is critical, says Jim Nail, Cymfony's CMO, given the stratospheric pricing of a Super Bowl spot. "You're paying a 10-times premium reaching a similar-size audience in prime-time programming," he says. "So you better get a lot more out of a Super Bowl buy than just 90 million viewers--you can buy them elsewhere, for a lot cheaper."
Another way to quantify an ad's impact is the increasing consumer interest in ranking them, either with snarky comments on social Web sites or simply by casting a vote. The Super Bowl seems to turn many viewers into members of the academy: These ad cognoscenti don't just want to laugh at the ads, they want to judge them.
In fact, that may be the most perplexing thing about the Super Bowl. Most of the time, people don't just passively hate TV ads--they actively thwart them, via high-tech methods (like TiVo) or time-honored traditions (bathroom breaks.) And while advertisers have long known that isn't true for the Super Bowl, a recent National Retail Federation study found that 41.5 million consumers say they will tune in because of the commercials.
By getting the news about ads out early and often, as Doritos did last year, and as advertisers like Pepsi, Bud Light and Taco Bell are doing this year, Nail says companies have a better chance at boosting word-of-mouth among this critical group.
"Marketers are a narcissistic lot. They think: 'My ads are so cool, consumers will want to watch them.' And of course, consumers don't care that much. But a few of them really care--they want to be the ones at the Super Bowl party saying, 'Have you seen this spot?'"
They also want an opportunity to make themselves heard. This year, Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland and co-founder of the original Ad Bowl, predicts a big voter turnout. Last year, more than 2,800 people voted at Adbowl.com--something McKee and friends invented with little slips of paper back in 2001 and took online the following year.
Others rate ads, most notably USA Today, using focus groups. "While the others get more attention, we actually think ours is the most democratic and the largest--I'm not saying it's scientific, by any means, but 2,800 is bigger than a focus group," McKee says.
While it has intrigued McKee to watch the way the YouTube phenomenon "has transformed Super Bowl ads from a one-day event to a 10-day season," he's still a little mystified by the intense pressure Super Bowl advertisers face to make their Super Bowl spots absolutely incredible. "If the Super Bowl is your one shot to make an impression on people," he says, "you've got a strategy problem, not an advertising problem."
Others insist that it's critical for advertisers to bring only their A game. "Not only do companies spend a lot to buy the spot, they also spend a great deal on the creative," says David Reibstein, a professor of marketing who specializes in metrics at the Wharton School. "And, usually, you had to convince senior management to buy into this, so it really is important to have an ad that breaks out from all the other advertisers--this is your big fanfare. And if it's bad, and if it gets panned in the press, that creates tremendous internal pressure. Remember when Glaxo introduced Levitra? It wasn't funny. It didn't really explain what the drug did. And it was one of the lowest-rated ads."
Nail agrees that the "blockbuster mentality has prevailed, ever since Apple's iconic "1984" spot." But Cymfony has also found that controversy for controversy's stake isn't always effective.
After measuring the consumer response to Nationwide's Kevin Federline spot last year, Cymfony found most consumers were quite positive about it--even if some fast-food workers were offended. But the opposite was true for the General Motors ad that featured a cute little robot offing himself:
"Social media's Favorability Index was very low at minus 122," Cymfony reports. And for Snickers, which drew so much heat for its ad that had two alpha-male mechanics accidentally kissing, "while the overall favorability remained positive, the high 196 Polarity Index indicates the controversy overshadowed the ad's selling message."