Super Bowl 50 was a remarkable event for advertisers. Brands were reported to be paying $5 million or more to run spots during the game.
Overall, it was an impressive collection of advertising. Many of the spots had strong branding and communicated a benefit. Compared to last year, there was a notable competitive tone. We also saw fewer ads with broad general themes and more spots with pointed messages.
Still, some ads worked better than others. Like the Super Bowl, there are winners and losers.
Every year, a panel of MBA students gathers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to review every single Super Bowl ad as it airs. The group evaluates the ads for effectiveness, not just entertainment, focusing on this important question: can the spot build the brand and grow the business? You can read more about the event here.
What follows are the top and bottom ads from the 2016 Super Bowl, as ranked by the Kellogg panel. I included video links for many of the spots. Visit the website to see these: www.timcalkins.com
Toyota’s Prius ad took the top prize this year. The ad managed to do two things: tell an engaging story and communicate a product benefit. As important, the branding was clear. This spot was all about the Prius. The car wasn’t part of the story; it was the heart of the ad.
This was the first ad for Prius since 2005. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Toyota won the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review that year, too.
It was hard to miss T Mobile. The cellular provider ran two excellent ads during the game, and these spots stood out from the pack for several reasons.
First, the branding was exceptionally strong. These were clearly ads for T Mobile. This is due, in part, to the distinctive pink color.
T Mobile also communicated a clear message. These were hard-hitting ads aimed at differentiating the brand from established competitors.
Last, the spots were creative. T Mobile used Drake in a clever fashion, and the Steve Harvey ad capitalized on his Miss America goof.
According to Frito-Lay, this is the last year of the Crash the Super Bowl event. It isn’t clear why the company is ending it. Once again, the contest delivered funny spots with strong branding and a clear benefit.
Anthony Hopkins stole the show in the light-hearted Turbo Tax ad. The entire ad revolved around one key point: that Turbo Tax is free.
The branding was very clear, and the ad revolved around the fact that Hopkins was indeed promoting Turbo Tax. This clever and unexpected creative idea left an impression.
This year, Budweiser took a different approach to the Super Bowl. The brand didn’t run a sweet spot featuring the Clydesdale horses. There were no puppies. Instead, Budweiser ran a tough, competitive ad proclaiming that it is not backing down.
Bud Light used Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen in a clever spot that promoted the Bud Light Party.
Budweiser also ran a charming spot with Hellen Mirren, reminding people not to drink and drive. As she noted, “Don’t be a pillock.” Note: pillock means stupid person.
All of these ads were distinctive and had strong branding. The team at AB InBev knows how to create strong Super Bowl spots.
Audi was one of the few brands to take a serious tone this year, and the spot scored well with the Kellogg panel.
The product benefit came through: Audi is a high performance car that delivers a remarkable driving experience. It can transform you.
We were not surprised that Audi did not focus the Super Bowl ad on diesel engines or clean technology.
There is a lot of pressure to create a new spot for the Super Bowl; people love fresh creative ideas.
It is impressive, then, that Snickers managed to remain distinct while using the same basic concept that has been promoting for years: you are not your best self when you are hungry.
It is hard not to like the Snicker’s Super Bowl spot. It gets your attention and clearly communicates a benefit consistent with the brand’s equity. The ad is entertaining. Most important, the creative idea is uniquely Snickers. By embracing an existing creative approach, the brand is able to own a particular type of commercial.
The 2016 Super Bowl featured a host of financial brands. This was a change. Most years, financial players steer clear. We suspect it is because the Super Bowl is a light, festive occasion, not ideally suited to serious messages about managing funds.
Pay Pal stood out for a strong spot highlighting the difference between old money and new money. The message was very clear. The creative was attention-getting. Branding came through.
Critically, if you don’t know anything about Pay Pal, this spot didn’t really help you. Is Pay Pal like Bitcoin? For people who know and use Pay Pal, however, the ad elevated the brand and established it as a leader.
One of the most engaging pre-game efforts was from Mini. The brand ran of series of vignettes with remarkable people such as Tony Hawk and Abby Wambach explaining how they had defied labels in their lives.
Mini’s Super Bowl spot embraced this idea; the ad focused on often incorrect labels people give to Minis.
Branding was exceptionally strong – the car was on the screen the entire time – but the benefits were not prominently featured. The ad told us the incorrect labels but didn’t spend much time on the correct ones.
Hyundai was one of the big spenders in the Super Bowl this year, running a series of spots before and during the game.
Hyundai’s two Super Bowl ads scored well with the Kellogg panel. The branding was good and there was a reason to buy the product. “The Chase” spot was particularly powerful; it attracted attention and highlighted a product feature: talk-start.
To roll out the new Quesalupa, a cheesy flat bread, Taco Bell ran a dynamic spot with strong branding. The key line, “This is going to be bigger than….” The fast-moving spot attracted attention. One of us pre-ordered the Quesalupa and tried it on Saturday. It was delicious.
Fiat-Chrysler focused its Super Bowl efforts this year on the Jeep brand with two ads saluting Jeep’s 75th anniversary.
The ads were big, epic spots and stood out for their unique tone. They attracted attention and had strong branding.
The team at Fiat-Chrysler knows how to build a brand. These spots did an impressive job highlighting why Jeep is so special.
To display the capabilities of the Echo, Amazon rolled out a spot with four celebrities: Dan Marino, Alec Baldwin, Jason Schwartzman, and Missy Elliot.
This ad could have been a mess – there was a lot going on – but the spot actually worked well. The Echo played a critical role, making it a product-focused piece of advertising.
Everyone loves wiener-dogs. The Heinz ad, featuring a pack of these characters, dramatized how much hot dogs love ketchup. It builds off the new mustard campaign as well.
The ad certainly broke through the clutter; it was the only spot with these interesting characters. It also had solid branding.
Kraft-Heinz has been through a rough stretch, with massive layoffs and disruption following a series of acquisitions and restructuring projects. This ad showed the company in a positive light. It worked.
One of the few serious ads was a spot for Colgate that ran late in the game.
The message: turn off the water when brushing your teeth. If you leave the water on, you waste valuable water that many people really need.
It isn’t entirely clear how this message will drive sales of Colgate products. Was it worth the $5 million investment over other venues? Perhaps the goal is to show that Colgate is industry leader and socially responsible company. That could enhance the brand. It scored well with the Kellogg panel.
Internet sensation Dollar Shave Club ran its first Super Bowl ad this year.
The spot highlighted how razors get old, dull, and dirty over time, and then it positioned Dollar Shave Club as the solution. The logic is a bit of a stretch, but the spot worked well overall.
As the ad unfolded, we wondered for a moment if it was an ad for Gillette, trying to build the overall category by getting people to switch blades more often.
Schick took aim at Gillette with its Super Bowl spot. The spot highlighted its hydrating gel reservoir that reduces friction and irritation better than the competition. The ad dismissed the Gillette product with, “Sorry, little blue strip.”
This is effectively designed advertising. The branding is clear, it gets your attention, and there is both a benefit and an attribute.
One of the surprise advertisers on the Super Bowl was Advil; the brand didn’t reveal that it was running an ad before the game.
The Advil spot worked well. Branding was strong and the message that Advil prevents pain came across.
It is all too easy to over-think Super Bowl advertising and create spots that are confusing and hard to follow. Advil went with a spot that was direct and clear.
To highlight the joys of being outside, Marmot featured a cuddly marmot character.
The branding worked here because the ad used a marmot, which is also the name of the company. The message came through.
While the Kellogg panel liked this spot, we wonder about the strategy. Encouraging people to get outside will build the overall category, and that will help Marmot, but the impact will be modest. Perhaps this ad positions Marmot as a category leader. It certainly didn’t say much about the product.
One of the great moments in the Super Bowl was Christopher Walken’s lecture about beige socks. As he explained, “Eventually the beige sock people get lost or devoured by the ones who stand out.” That is an important message. Who wants to be a beige sock? It certainly is true in the world of branding. The beige socks aren’t noticed. Beige socks are not great brands.
Still, there is a bit of a reason to believe problem in this spot. Is driving a Kia really a way to avoid being a beige sock?
Selling beer is a curious business. Talking about the product doesn’t really work; there is only so much you can say about hops and barley. A lot of beer marketing revolves around the brand. You need to build a brand people want to be associated with.
That explains why the strange spot from Shock Top worked. TJ Miller gets into a discussion with a Shock Top beer tap. They don’t discuss the beer; they just trade insults.
The branding in this spot is strong, and it highlights Shock Top’s quirky character. It will boost sales, which is what a Super Bowl spot is supposed to do.
To promote the new Fit Bit Blaze, the brand ran a spot that connected everyday life with athletic moments. The idea of fitness came through along with the brand. This Super Bowl spot will reinforce Fit Bit’s core positioning, and it will get people thinking about their new watch product.
We love laddering up, taking a simple attribute and connecting it to more significant benefits. That is what Quicken Loans does in its Super Bowl spot. The attribute is Rocket Mortgage, a new product that lets people get a mortgage completely online. The benefit is more home ownership, more furniture purchases and ultimately a better world.
This spot works well. The focus is on branding and benefits. The only problem is that the product gets a little lost. Can I really take out a mortgage on my phone? How is that going to work?
In 2012, VW ran one of the most loved Super Bowl spots of all time. The “Vader” ad featured a small boy dressed up as Darth Vader who was shocked when he seemed to start the family car. The VW remote start feature made it all possible.
Honda used a similar approach this year: develop a charming spot and communicate a product feature. In this case, the charm came from a group of singing sheep. The feature was the truck-bed music system available in the new Honda Ridgeline.
The award for most disturbing character this year goes to Mountain Dew’s puppy-monkey-baby. The creation was a combination of three great things: the Budweiser puppy, the E-Trade baby, and the Career Builder monkey. Mountain Dew’s new drink is also a combination of three great things: Mountain Dew, juice, and caffeine.
It is difficult to love the puppy-monkey-baby, but the spot has its strengths. It gets your attention, stands out, and communicates a reason to buy the product.
For sheer surprise, it is hard to top the spot from Death Wish Coffee. It was a stunning spot full of drama that came to an unexpected end.
We believe this ad will generate business Death Wish. We wonder if the brand will be able to keep up with orders and whether it will be able to turn this sudden jump in awareness into a meaningful long-term business.
The spot is also a success for QuickBooks. The Small Business-Big Game contest received more than 15,000 entries. This level of engagement and excitement can help reinforce the QuickBooks brand with small business owners.
We like to imagine that advertisers read our work religiously, value our advice and incorporate our recommendations.
Unfortunately, that clearly isn’t the case. Some companies make the same mistakes year after year, ignoring our recommendations.
Weather Tech is one of those firms. This is the company’s third year advertising on the Super Bowl. Last year and the year before, we highlighted the importance of clearly establishing what the product is (frame of reference) and why someone should buy it (benefit). So what did the company do this year? Ignore our advice and run a spot that fails to establish a frame or communicate a benefit.
We have a lot of respect for Weather Tech’s commitment to brand building and willingness to invest in Super Bowl advertising. We just wish the company would stop running spots that don’t communicate a positioning.
Pepsi, Axe, Avocados from Mexico, OIC, Coke, Skittles, Mobile Strike, Michelob, Xifaxan, Butterfinger and Pokemon.
California-based lender SoFi aired its first Super Bowl spot this year. The ad focused on distinguishing between people who are “great: and people who are not.
This is the heart of SoFi’s strategy. The firm lends to people who are excellent credit risks, and it offers low rates. It is a savvy strategy.
The spot was light on branding, and it focused more on the great/not great question than the ultimate benefit: exceptionally low rates.
Sun Trust didn’t set out to win the popularity polls with its Super Bowl ads, nor did it. The brand ran a fairly serious spot highlighting financial stress, encouraging people to seek help to relieve it.
This is an important message, and it will build the Sun Trust brand. We suspect it is unlikely to spark a jump in deposit or loan volume, and running a national spot for a regional bank is a questionable decision.
Still, the Super Bowl effort can build awareness. It may also motivate employees and build loyalty.
To promote its new line of televisions, LG partnered with director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner and The Martian) to create a striking, bold spot.
The story is engaging and draws you in with striking imagery. Aspects of it are beautiful. The problem is linkage; it isn’t clear how this exciting story relates to LG televisions.
Scott directed Apple’s 1984 spot. The LG ad does not appear to be on track to receive similar acclaim.
There was a lot to like in the spot from Apartments.com. The music was wonderful, and Jeff Goldblum was charming. The ad attracted attention and was unique.
So what happened?
The problem here is simple: positioning. Apartments.com didn’t set up a frame of reference or provide an attribute. What does this company do? Does it own apartment buildings? Is it a website where people post rentals? Why is it uniquely good? These are important questions that this otherwise appealing spot doesn’t answer.
The challenge for auto brands is distinction. With so many auto brands advertising on the Super Bowl, you have to do something unique.
This is where the Acura spot has trouble. The ad is appealing enough, but it blends in. It is one of those spots that is hard to remember, and probably better suited for a non-Super Bowl buy. What did Acura run, anyway?
Persil is a new laundry detergent brand attacking well-entrenched competitor Tide from P&G. To steal share, Persil needed a compelling Super Bowl spot. It had to introduce the brand and communicate a clear reason to switch.
The spot didn’t work very well. It was too short, just 15 seconds. It also wasn’t compelling. Apparently Persil has some good test results; we are confident that Tide has some good test results, too.
We anticipate Persil won’t last long in the U.S. market. If you’d like to try it, move quickly.
One can debate the merits of advertising a toenail fungus medication on the Super Bowl. Regardless, this spot doesn’t work particularly well. The core problem is that it is hard to follow. In the spot, a fellow somehow discovers Deion Sanders and Howie Long relaxing in a spa. The discussion then moves right to toenail fungus, Jublia, and the obligatory side-effects.
This ad makes little sense.
Last year, the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review panel put Squarespace at the bottom of the list. The brand ran an ad that was confusing and hard to follow.
This year, Squarespace ran another Super Bowl ad and finished at the bottom of the list again. Once again, the Squarespace execution was confusing and hard to follow.
It will be interesting to see if Squarespace can keep the trend going in 2017.
By Tim Calkins and Derek D. Rucker