#27: What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Stick?

Budweiser, McDonald's and Apple are just some of the many brands that have nailed iconic Super Bowl Ads - what is unique about their strategy?

Welcome to the twenty-seventh edition of the Marketing Mind Meld - a dive deeper into odd questions about marketing and human behavior. I’ve explored why jingles stick, the reason colors trick our brainwhy we love conspiracy theories and more! 🎉 

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Growing up in Massachusetts, I spent most of my Super Bowl evenings fairly stressed.

In the roughly twenty Super Bowls I’ve watched since 1999, my Patriots have played in nine of them. Those were nine evenings where I was frantic about the game, guzzling beer, annoyed at my friends, stress piling my face with pita chips, or usually some combination of all of the above.

This year, I was particularly excited.

While I’d been on an overnight flight sleeping through last year’s Super Bowl, this year was different. Not only could I get to watch Tom Brady play without the associated stress - it was my first year of watching as both a fan and a marketer.

Watching not just the magic of the Brady-Mahomes showdown, but the magic of all the ads in between.

The concept of a Super Bowl ad has always fascinated me.

Not only do they continue to be an outrageously expensive endeavor for most brands, but in many ways they defy the traditional rules of marketing.

For one, you learn very little about the actual product or pricing. Wondering how much to pay for an Audi? What makes a Budweiser better than a Bud Light? Where to buy Reebok shoes?

Good luck finding any of those answers in a Super Bowl spot.

Instead, Super Bowl ads aim for something more abstract. Mental real estate.

How do we capture someone’s momentary attention as one of eighty thirty second ads happening across a four hour long time period?

How do we stay original and true to ourselves, yet unique and completely different?

How do we manage to make a group of half-drunk, impatiently cranky, highfalutin football aficionados feel something deep in their heart?

It’s an ephemeral zeitgeist at best but one, if done well, can bring the brand popularity for years and years to come.

Even today, while I can’t promise you I would ever buy a Volkswagan Passat or a Hyundai Sonata, those brands regularly come to mind just by virtue of their excellent Superbowl execution.

While the abstract element does open up a brand’s ceiling for creativity, few brands come out of a Superbowl with a memorable ad, let alone one that lasts beyond the collective consciousness of the year.

It got me curious - when people think of the best Super Bowl ads of all time, what does come to mind?

What patterns connect some of the best Super Bowl ads in history?

Similar to my research for the Top Jingles of All Time, I needed a general consensus to start. I asked my twitter followers, perused Youtube, and churned through list after list on Google of the best ads.

These were the ones I found that were repeated on most lists:

At first glance, most of these ads are from many different time periods and from different brands - it’s hard to say that there was a golden age of Super Bowl ads or even that one brand consistently nailed the Super Bowl spot every single year.

How do these ads, quick spots amongst thousands, endure the test of time?

As expected, there isn’t one thing that unites them all and it’s not as straightforward as just ads being funny and emotional - but these ads do tell us what humans flock to when it comes to short spots.

Let’s explore the world… of Super Bowl ad psychology.

What Do Sticky Super Bowl Ads Have In Common?

If you watch the Super Bowl enough, you might find the ads a bit formulaic.

There is always an ad that attempts to capture the current moment (like Chrysler did in 2012 with its Halftime America ad), usually a goofy ad with a celebrity (the awkward Bar Rafaeli GoDaddy Kiss Ad) and always a handful of beer and car commercials with baritone voiceovers and patriotic melodies dancing across the screen.

Of course, there’s the patently awful (SaleGenie’s racist ad in the 2008 Superbowl) and the atonement brands like Robinhood that could’ve totally kept quiet.

But most ads happen to be in the middle - they don’t hurt your feelings, but they also don’t command your attention well after the game is over.

When I started to search for the psychology of ads that broke through the mold, I found some interesting overall insights from those who had studied brands for years.

In an AdWeek article on the Formula for an Effective Super Bowl Ad, Creative and Innovation Editor David Griner mentions the value of consistency:

“A Super Bowl ad needs to stand out with creative impact in a crowded ad break— but it also needs to remind viewers of ads they’ve seen before for the same brand.”

We’ve actually seen this work fairly well over the course of time, even with the commercials on the list above.

The Clydesdales used in the Puppy Love commercial for Budweiser ended up becoming a mainstay in many of their spots with different storylines. The Adult Baby (E-Trade) and the Frogs (Budweiser) become regular characters in their spots over the years with variants that largely kept the same overall characters.

Some commercials are even pure remakes. Mcdonald’s remade its famous Showdown commercial from the list above, where Larry Bird and Michael Jordan were having a shooting contest for a Big Mac, with Lebron James and Dwight Howard in 2010. It was the perfect mix - a nostalgic lookback for those who remembered the Jordan-Bird commercial, a relevant add for current fans of the NBA, and a variant of a similar storyline that resonated wide with audiences in 2010.

Even Old Spice and Cindy Crawford found their way into remakes.

Professor Alexander Mafael, an assistant professor of marketing at the Stockholm School of Economics, quoted in Griner’s piece, says: “Unless the brand needs to reposition itself, it is important to tell its story in the same way.”

While this makes sense for brands who have been doing it for years or brands that have had a hit in the past, how did the brands above get their first hit?

What I found is that the ads above all fell into three large categories:

  • Quick Primer: A spot with a memorable catchphrase, tagline, mascot or slogan that begins to priming our brain for a brand association

  • Affective Narrative: A spot with a storyline or narrative that immediately impacts our moods or emotions in a significant way

  • Creative Juxtaposition: A spot that takes two things that don’t belong together and putting them together in a way that makes it over the top

Let’s go through each.

Quick Primer

In the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ad and “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” ad from Old Spice, we found cues that became regular associations with those brands.

Even ten years from the original airing, you can probably visualize the spot perfectly. Isaiah Mustafa in a bath towel and eventually on a horse. Even when Terry Crews stepped in as a spokesperson, he dressed in the same attire to keep the cues intact.

With Wendy’s, while there aren’t any deliberate visual cues, the simple “Where’s The Beef?line shouted by actress Clara Peller made the slogan a household name.

Not only was it just a slogan for Wendy’s that made its way into country songs, bumper stickers, frisbees and more, it entered the lexicon as an all-purpose phrase questioning the substance of an idea. Walter Mondale even began to use it during his 1984 Presidential Election to sum up policies by his rival, Senator Gary Hart.

Not bad for a single Super Bowl spot.

According to VeryWellMind, Priming is defined as “a technique in which the introduction of one stimulus influences how people respond to a subsequent stimulus. Priming works by activating an association or representation in memory just before another stimulus or task is introduced.”

It’s the reason why good slogans stick (Can anyone hear “Just Do It” without thinking of Nike?) but it also extends beyond simple memory - it can impact our day to day decisions. We might be less inclined to go to a Mcdonald’s by recalling the irate woman from the Wendy’s commercial or more inclined to get Old Spice at Walgreens to make women swoon.

But it’s also illogical - as the Budweiser ad grew in popularity, frogs made people think of Budweiser. If you weren’t thinking of a beer, now you were. Maybe not a win for your memory in the long-run, but certainly a win for Budweiser.

Affective Narrative

In my article on Tik-Tok, I shared my thoughts on the power of affective content, content that is evocative and designed to a strike an emotion.

Super Bowl ads that are sentimental and include a nostalgic touch are certainly loved - but the best Super Bowl ads do something additionally clever: they create a quick storyline.

One of the most fascinating articles I’ve read on the power of storytelling in marketing comes from Neuroeconomist Paul Zak, where he talks about the importance of developing tension during a narrative.

If the story is able to create useful tension, it is likely that the watchers will share the emotions of the people in the story. If we extend this to Super Bowl spots, we’ll see that a lot of the best ones contain some level of tension.

  • The Volkswagen Passat ad with the little kid dressed as Darth Vader shows us a kid who can’t use the force for anything, until his dad makes his dream come true by turning on the Passat from afar.

  • The Budweiser Puppy Love ad shows a Clydesdale horse and a puppy becoming best friends, until the puppy has to move and the Clydesdale horse has to chase after it.

  • The Apple Ad shows a white heroine saving humanity from conformity (Big Brother, which was meant to be IBM)

  • The Mean Joe Greene commercial shows a tired and irritated Joe Greene walking to the locker room, until his mood is magically lifted by a kid offering him a free Coke.

  • The Showdown above with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, where we’re presumably captivated by this contest by two of the greatest contemporary shooters.

In all of those, we are sharing in the wins and losses.

We’re excited for the kid when he sees the car fire up. We’re excited for the kid when he gets the towel from Joe Greene. We feel the warmth when the puppy and horse reunite. We’re motivated to see the heroine defeat Big Brother and for Apple to introduce Macintosh. We’re excited to see who will hit the next shot in the showdown.

It’s the entire trajectory of the story that captives and engages us - and why we remember these ads years after.

Creative Juxtaposition

I mentioned above that celebrities aren’t always a golden key to Super Bowl creative stardom - there has to be a layer of twist that makes the ad memorable.

In the Power of Creative Juxtaposition, author Mark Peters interviews humorist Chuck Sambuchino who talks about his love for creative juxtaposition. A pope on a skateboard. Outtakes from Pixar movies. Things that don’t belong together but become humorous when we put them together.

This is where we can round out the goofy ads. They’re not just traditional slapstick or a celebrity telling standup jokes - they’re goofy precisely because they employ this creative juxtaposition.

Take Betty White in the Snickers commercial. She’s an 88 year old woman playing football with the boys. MJ and Bird in the Showdown commercial. Two ruthless competitors fighting over a silly thing like a Big Mac. Even the Cindy Crawford Pepsi Commercial - she’s one of the top supermodels in the world but the little boys ogling at her drinking a Pepsi don’t care as much about supermodels as they do about the new Pepsi logo.

The best example: E-Trade Baby. Financial advice from a literal freaking baby. (I will confess that I almost didn’t include this ad on here because this baby gave me nightmares, but it was unfortunately a crucial part of the research.)

Sambuchino adds that the psychology of humor resides in two things:

  • Pointing out the unspoken truths of life

  • Things that purposefully introduce nonsense

The latter is where the ads with creative juxtaposition thrive.

Final Thoughts

If we think about the 2021 SuperBowl, we can likely root out similar reasons why we loved the ads we did.

One of my favorite ads came from Cheetos, where Ashton Kutcher was attempting to accuse Mila Kunis of eating Cheetos, with some help from Shaggy. There was an element of nostalgia with the Shaggy intervention and an element of light tension. Same with the Bud Light Lemons Ad that showed lemons falling and left us with both schadenfreude and relief. Affective Narrative.

The winner of the Quick Primer award has to go to Michael B. Jordan and Alexa - who seemed to make everyone on Twitter want their Alexa to sound a certain way.

I would even throw in the Lil Nas X Logitech Ad as a bit of a stretch but a good primer - trying to use the words “Defy Logic” on repeat to store it on our brains as an association with Logitech.

The Creative Juxtaposition award gave us lots of fun wins - Maya Rudolph in the Old Wild West for Klarna, Drake as the awkward stand in for Jake from State Farm, and my personal favorite - Daveed Diggs laying out down a hard rap on Sesame Street.

But you might be saying - will the future be limited to these categories?

In a Super Bowl Ad Nerd Clubhouse chat I attended on Monday, the panelists were asked to name their favorite ad: many pointed to the Reddit Ad that lasted for only five seconds as a creative ad spot.

It was way too quick to be a primer. Not nearly long enough to have a dramatic narrative. No creative juxtaposition. So how do we classify Reddit?

That’s where I’m stuck. We’ll have to wait to see if this actual Reddit ad has any legs in human recall ten years from row, but I expect we’ll see lots of similar ads in the future.

Do short sweets deserve their own category? Do ads that primarily resonate through digital deserve a place in Super Bowl lore? Will we see some ads skip the television spot altogether? What about the weird Oatly content play that fit into almost no category?

While it’s fun to look back on the best of Super Bowl history, the future will be a battle of consumer evolution and tradition. While I imagine the large brands will continue doing spots, the smaller brands can focus more on where consumer attention actually is during the game. There are still many perfect storms waiting to be brewed.

That being said, while uncertainty lies in the future of what happens in the Super Bowl, there is one thing I’m fairly confident will stay consistent.

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