Sacking familiar myths about Super Bowl ads

The Super Bowl XLIX logo is displayed on the University of Phoenix Stadium, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. The New England Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday, Feb. 1, in Glendale. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Super Bowl weekend is here, and with it the annual debate about whether Super Bowl advertising — an absurdly expensive orgy of exuberant consumerism — is worthy of its reputation as marketing’s most defining moment. Super Bowl ads are shrouded in misconceptions, in part because so few of us are able to learn how much mileage brands get out of their top-dollar ad buys. But here are the myths we can safely debunk.

1) A Super Bowl ad isn’t worth the cost.

Super Bowl ads don’t come cheap. This year, the price tag is $4.5 million for a 30-second spot — and that covers just the fee paid to the network hosting the game. Millions more can be spent on celebrity appearances, music licensing, agency fees and production.

It’s true that some studies have shown that as many as 80 percent of Super Bowl ads don’t increase purchases and that people have a hard time recalling the brand associated with a Super Bowl ad they watched. But on balance, the numbers indicate that a Super Bowl ad is worth the investment for the companies that can afford it — assuming the commercial is any good.

In 2014, a survey of 37,440 U.S. consumers by the tech firm BrandAds found that the average Super Bowl ad increased viewers’ likelihood of buying the product by 6.6 percent. The number was far higher for the most popular spots, with Hyundai seeing a 39.5 percent lift and Budweiser scoring a 37.8 percent increase. Only 16 percent of brands created negative interest with their ads. With NBC expecting more than 112 million viewers for this year’s game, a $4.5 million investment in an ad comes out to 4 cents per viewer — more than the 2.5 cents per view for a 30-second prime-time TV ad estimated by the Television Bureau of Advertising, but arguably money much more powerfully spent.

2) The most memorably creative ads are Super Bowl ads.

In the pre-YouTube era, the Super Bowl truly was one of the few times you could expect to see big-budget, well-crafted ads. But today, agencies produce masterpieces throughout the year, often tied to no event whatsoever. But the link between quality commercials and Super Bowl commercials is so ingrained that people regularly misremember their favorite ads as Super Bowl ads. Old Spice’s smash hit “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” was recently lauded by a senior writer at one of the world’s top ad agencies as his favorite Super Bowl commercial; Yahoo TV rated it No. 7 on its list of the best Super Bowl spots ever made. But the ad didn’t appear during the Super Bowl.

3) Releasing an ad before the Super Bowl will steal its thunder.

A consistent lesson from recent Super Bowls: The most successful ads were often released several days in advance. Volkswagen’s “The Force” (with the adorable little Darth Vader) was released online the Wednesday before 2011’s Super Bowl and had a staggering 12 million-plus views before it aired on television. Similarly, last year’s “Puppy Love” Budweiser ad went live four days before the game and was hailed by Adweek and by the USA Today Ad Meter as the Super Bowl’s best commercial.

4) Prominent brands don’t need Super Bowl ads.

Major brands continue to go big with their advertising — and often see big returns. A Stanford University study determined that Budweiser generates as much as $96 million from its Super Bowl advertising. Researchers estimated the brewer’s return at 172 percent.

The same study found that one of the biggest benefits of Super Bowl ads is that consumers learn to associate those brands with parties and other gatherings. That’s great news if you make potato chips, soda or beer. But when two competitors advertised during the same game, the researchers found, the benefits were eroded, creating a sort of stalemate. If one of the competitors dropped out, the remaining brand would reap all the benefits.

That may be what happened when Pepsi passed on the Super Bowl in 2010 to focus more on social media and digital marketing options. After that decision, Pepsi dropped from No. 2 behind Coca-Cola to No. 3 behind Diet Coke. Pepsi has returned as a Super Bowl advertiser ever since.

5) Sex sells.

Except it doesn’t. Judging from the nearly monastic lineup of ads revealed before Sunday’s game, Super Bowl salaciousness is on the decline, perhaps because advertisers are realizing that consumers don’t respond well to it. An estimated 46 percent of Super Bowl viewers are women, and a 2013 study published in Psychological Science found that women have a negative reaction to sexualized ads, especially if the products are relatively low in cost.

David Griner is digital managing editor of Adweek.com.