The Super Bowl remains marketing’s biggest event. Nothing comes even close in terms of reach, attention and price.
Once again this year, a panel of MBA students gathered at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to strategically evaluate the Super Bowl ads. The group hunkered down to assess the ads for effectiveness—not just entertainment—with a critical question asked of each spot: is this an ad that can help build the brand and the business?
What follows are the top and bottom spots from the 2018 Super Bowl, as ranked by the Kellogg panel, along with commentary.
This year’s top advertiser, according to the Kellogg panel, was Amazon Alexa. The sixty-second spot did everything a Super Bowl ad needs to do from strategy to entertainment. It broke through the clutter, was distinctive and communicated a benefit.
The brand’s towering achievement was linkage. The creative idea was entirely about the product: Alexa lost her voice. This could have come across as forced, but it didn’t; it seemed natural, logical and fun.
For sheer creativity, it is difficult to beat Tide’s wave of Super Bowl ads. Its strong presence led one of us—Derek—to dub it the Super Bowl MVP.
The brand started off with a spot establishing that anything could be a Tide ad as long as it featured clean clothes. As the Super Bowl unfolded, Tide ran a wave of delightful spots that reinforced the idea and also paid homage to other well-known ads from P&G.
Our favorite moment was when Tide reprised last year’s Mr. Clean Super Bowl spot, suggesting that actually, “It’s a Tide ad.”
P&G is clearly concerned about competition in the category. Discount brands are attacking from below, and Persil Pro Clean is competing in the premium segment. On the Super Bowl, at least, Tide reigned supreme.
Doritos and Mountain Dew
PepsiCo made a creative decision to bundle Doritos and Mountain Dew in back to back spots. This decision seems obvious in hindsight; the brands presumably have similar targets and brand image.
The combination of the two ads increased the overall impact. It turned two solid spots into a high-powered Super Bowl combination: great attention, distinction and branding.
Attacking an industry leader can be a powerful approach for a smaller brand. Wendy’s embraced this strategy with a hard-hitting ad that leveraged McDonald’s own comments about itself. The spot managed to do two things: it communicated a product benefit and reinforced Wendy’s brand equity.
Wendy’s has an edgy spirit in the social media world. With this ad, Wendy’s brought their tonality to the Super Bowl. This will be one of the more interesting brands to follow moving forward.
Avocados from Mexico
Every once in a while, you can clearly see the strategy behind an ad. This isn’t a bad thing; it suggests the ad is on target. Avocados from Mexico’s Super Bowl ad falls into this category; the goal is to get people thinking about different ways to use avocados.
Over the past several years, the brand has emerged as a solid and consistent Super Bowl advertiser. This year, Avocados from Mexico did it again with a strong spot that may have been its best yet.
Branding is a critical challenge in a Super Bowl ad. If people don’t know the brand, the spot isn’t likely to work.
The spot from M&Ms excelled in this area. From start to finish, the M&M characters were front and center. The ad also reinforced the M&Ms brand equity.
Life is complicated; Rocket Mortgage is simple. This ad, showing a fellow cutting through the clutter of daily life, clearly communicated a benefit: that Rocket Mortgage is easy.
The marketing team at Budweiser understands the power music wields toward generating emotion. For years, they focused this insight on the Clydesdales, creating some of the most popular Super Bowl ads of all time.
This year, Budweiser decided to talk about its long history of supporting disaster relief. The result is a compelling ad that communicates clearly and enhances the brand.
Sprint directly attacked Verizon in its Super Bowl ad, clearly communicating that Sprint was cheaper and almost as good. The clever twist was that Sprint used a robot to make the case. The ad attracted attention, and the message came across.
The prize for most improved Super Bowl advertiser this year goes to Groupon. In 2011, the brand ran one of the most distasteful Super Bowl ads of all time, when it made light of the struggles in Tibet. This year, Groupon’s Super Bowl ad worked well, with Tiffany Haddish celebrating how Groupon supports local businesses.
Of course, we don’t usually think of Groupon for supporting local business. Perhaps that sort of thinking explains the strategy.
At first blush, this ad seemed like the Crocodile Dundee franchise was going to get a reboot. However, as it turned out, it was a slick ploy to advertise all that Australia had to offer to tourists. Although the brand might have gone on with the charade a tad too long, the overall messaging about the benefits of Australia were clear and communicated in a clever way.
A good spot should reinforce a brand’s equity. Jeep’s Super Bowl ad certainly does this well; the ad had strong branding and communicated its rugged, outdoor credentials by showcasing Jeep’s ability to traverse a river.
Pringles is another example of a clear strategy. Like Avocados from Mexico, the brand focused on increasing consumption. How? Encourage people to combine different flavors of Pringles to bring unique tastes to life. This spot clearly communicated the concept.
The phrase “Dilly Dilly” has taken on a life of its own. Not surprisingly, Bud Light used it in its dramatic Super Bowl ads that introduced the Bud Light Knight. The spots attracted attention. With less ad competition, these ads might have scored at the top of the ranking.
Causes were a clear theme this year. Hyundai celebrated its donations to cancer research in its emotional spot that scored well with the Kellogg panel.
The ad attracted attention and seemed credible. Some people thought having cancer survivors thanking people for buying a Hyundai was a little over the top, but at least the brand could back it up with its own actions. Most folks probably buy a Hyundai for the quality, features and price, but this ad might improve brand equity.
Stella was another brand that embraced a cause: clean water. The message? Buy a Stella chalice and provide years of clean drinking water. The spot had good branding and featured celebrity Matt Damon.
This effort has two big positives. First, it enhances perceptions of the brand. Second, it places Stella-branded glassware in homes across the country.
Pepsi embraced the idea of generations in its Super Bowl ad. The basic message: for every generation there is a Pepsi. This ad attracted attention and fit with Pepsi’s brand equity, which helps explain the panel’s score.
For many years, E Trade used a baby in its Super Bowl ad. This year, the brand tried a different approach and featured senior citizens who were forced back to work because they didn’t have adequate retirement savings.
The message was quite clear: start saving for your retirement at E Trade.
Wix announced it wasn’t running a Super Bowl ad this year. At the last minute, it reversed the decision, apparently after it got a great deal on the price.
The resulting spot worked very well. It was essentially a product demonstration—the ad communicated different features available on the Wix platform to help create a website.
The telecom giant used its Super Bowl ad to thanks first responders. It was a unique approach and attracted attention. Given the weak linkage and benefit, the B grade feels generous.
Toyota was one of the big advertisers on the Super Bowl, running a series of ads. The spots all tapped into causes with broad appeal. However, linkage could be an issue. One watch out: the stories could be told without the brand.
Selling Febreeze isn’t easy; the product is often used in the bathroom to eliminate unpleasant odors. This clever spot, featuring a character whose “bleep don’t stink,” dramatized the benefit. The joke was a bit subtle, however, so it didn’t seem to work with everyone.
You have to admire the clarity of Michelob Ultra’s positioning: it is the healthy beer. The message came across clearly in the brand’s two spots on the Super Bowl.
Ram ran a pair of spots on the Super Bowl—both dramatic, tough, masculine and epic.
One of the ads featured a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. This struck many as highly inappropriate, and Ram is the one advertiser receiving significant criticism after the game. Repurposing important cultural icons is risky; it can sometimes offend people.
The message of this diverse expose was clear: there is a Coke for you and you and you. It is the rare brand indeed that can appeal to everyone, and Coke doesn’t fall into that category.
It is tough to be against families. We are for families! Kraft is for families! Who isn’t for families? This spot, featuring photos of actual families, was anything but polarizing. Unfortunately, the high-order benefit was also so general that it probably didn’t do much for the Kraft brand. Moreover, among all the great Super Bowl ads that ran this year, this spot seemed to get a bit lost.
Doing taxes can be scary. These spots, featuring a ghost and a monster, communicated a clear benefit: Turbo Tax transforms the process of doing taxes. Solid spots.
The Intuit spot featured the familiar “you can skip this ad in 7 seconds” timer to dramatize its convenience. The clever approach was unique but the spot was weak on linkage.
This Lexus spot featured a beautiful car. It was a perfectly adequate piece of advertising, but the spot was low on distinction. This could have been a commercial for any variety of cars.
Late branding is always a challenge and a risk. This ad attracted attention, but brand linkage suffered from late branding.
The choice of Steven Tyler is also debatable. Some people thought he was not a credible spokesperson. Does Steven Tyler really prefer to drive a Kia? And does it really make him feel young? We suspect not.
This new Super Bowl advertiser attacked Apple’s headphones to promote its brand. This approach can work—as we discussed with Wendy’s—however, Monster didn’t really deliver a benefit. Some people also criticized the brand for using Iggy Azalea, a somewhat polarizing celebrity.
Persil Pro Clean ran a solid spot. Branding was strong, and the benefit came across.
With Tide’s massive Super Bowl investment, however, Persil was unable to break through the clutter. Some people thought the Persil ad was actually for Tide.
After seeing the Turkish Airlines, spot we were ready to travel. It was a beautiful piece of advertising. The challenge: weak distinction and branding. Why Turkish Airlines?
If a piece of advertising is going to be effective, it has to clarify the frame of reference, which is to say, “What is it?”
WeatherTech ran an ad featuring a new factory that it constructed in the United States. The problem was that WeatherTech didn’t clarify what it makes (floor mats) or why they are worth buying (protect the car with precision measured mats). At one point, the ad shows construction of a wall, a possibly unfortunate reference to another, more controversial wall.
Video game ads can be a challenge. The game’s content is hard to transfer to a television spot. That was likely the problem with this ad. It didn’t attract attention, and branding was weak.
There was a lot to like in this ad. It was clearly for a sneaker brand, and the benefit came across: more space.
So why did this score so poorly with the Kellogg panel? We suspect the problem here was distinction. It was a fine ad, but it didn’t set itself apart.
Blacture takes the prize for strangest ad on the Super Bowl. The dramatic spot for a new media platform stood out, but it didn’t communicate the frame of reference or a benefit.
A bigger problem is that the website isn’t even ready. If you visit the site, you can see a countdown timer. The site will actually be active in a couple months.
Driving awareness without an actual product is a risky move. People are quick to forget things and move on.
You have to give Squarespace credit for consistency. Over the past several years, the brand has run a series of ads that scored poorly with the Kellogg panel. This year, Squarespace did it again.
The ad, featuring Keanu Reeves standing on a motorcycle, lacked linkage and a benefit. Sure, it was bizarre, but the brand missed yet another opportunity to build their strengths in consumers’ minds.
What happened to T-Mobile?
Last year, T-Mobile ran some of the best ads on the Super Bowl. The spots were distinctive and product-focused. They made it clear exactly why someone should switch to T-Mobile.
This year, T-Mobile pivoted and ran an ad featuring babies. Apparently T-Mobile is excited about the future waiting for these little people.
How does this all connect to T-Mobile? It is not at all clear, making this one of the worst linkage examples we can recall.
By Tim Calkins and Derek D. Rucker