The only reason for a non-Seattle fan to watch this year’s Super Bowl past the first half was for the commercials.
Typically, Super Bowl ads are evaluated by the reactions of critics, by how many people like them and whether or not they go viral. These are the wrong metrics. The purpose of an ad is to further the brand—more specifically, the sales of the brand.
The opinions of critics and the number of people who like and/or view the ad is irrelevant if the ad does not capture and further the essence of the brand. What does matter is that the unconscious association people have with the brand and to the ad was created to further that brand in the marketplace.
What we need to know is what associations the brand generates and whether the ad moves these associations forward. We can’t ask this because associations are unconscious. We can measure them using modern psychological science methods. For iconic brands, advertised for so many years in the Super Bowl, we can make educated guesses to approximate such measurement.
A Tale of Two Buds
Let’s look at two different kinds of Budweiser commercials shown in this year’s Super Bowl. In the first two ads, holding onto a bottle of Bud leads to an amazing series of upbeat adventures for an average Joe. The ads perfectly match the Bud brand. They blend beautifully with decades of associations to Bud as the “good time party beer” and take it to a new level. They also perfectly match the new Bud tagline: “The Perfect Beer for Whatever Happens.”
Then, late in the game, we were treated to an ad with a puppy and a Clydesdale who love each other. This was a wonderful ad, beautifully shot and choreographed. Everyone loves puppies and who wouldn’t be moved by an intimate friendship between two animal species?
But what does this have to do with beer generally and with Bud specifically? Further, the brand was never mentioned until after the story had been told. After seeing the ad, my wife and I wanted to adopt a puppy (as did my children) but neither of us had an urge for a beer or, more specifically, a Budweiser.
So, although the ad generated positive emotions and wonderful associations, these had nothing to do with Bud. People may talk about it, they may send it to their friends but because of how unconscious processes work, this will not lead to a furtherance of the Bud brand or to greater beer sales.
Don’t believe me? During last year’s Super Bowl, Bud aired a similar ad about the friendship between a horse and a man (“Brotherhood”). It went viral and was universally lauded. How did sales of Bud do? They were down about 3% for the year. Granted, many things go into sales and this ad certainly did not depress sales. But it clearly did not enhance them either.
The Case of Terry Tate, Office Linebacker
Need another example? In 2003, Reebok aired an ad called “Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.” It was hilarious. A linebacker tackled and screamed at office workers who did not carry their weight at work. A CEO commented on how this increased productivity. The critics loved it. People talked about it. It was downloaded seven million times.
As with the Bud puppy and Clydesdale ads, the brand (Reebok) was never mentioned. It was not even mentioned after the story. Associations? Clearly there were associations to football. Also to slapstick. What were the associations to footwear? To Reebok specifically? None.
So what happened? First, 55% of people polled did not even realize that Reebok had created the ad. That’s not good. And sales? Sales during the year were flat, or even slightly down, when constant dollars were calculated. Again, we can’t say that the ad adversely affected sales. But again, it certainly didn’t boost sales either. Seven million downloads and constant chatter about the ads did nothing for the brand.
Bud’s Hero’s Homecoming
And then there is the third Bud ad in this year’s Super Bowl, “A Hero’s Homecoming.” Another wonderful ad. It seems to be in the spirit of the puppy love ad. We have a reunion and we are tugged on our heartstrings. However, in terms of unconscious associations related to Bud, the two ads could not be further apart. In A Hero’s Homecoming, Budweiser is not telling a fictitious story. This is an event that is actually happening. The brand is engaged in an actual good deed. Lt. Chuck Nadd is a real person and deserves the homecoming created for him. The audience feels happy for this real person.
Further, the ad presented the Bud brand in a tasteful, understated way. It was not front and center. People were not shown ostentatiously drinking Bud or holding it aloft. But it was there and visible in signage and in the coloring of the ad. Clearly, the homecoming is to be associated with Bud without taking the spotlight from the story. The product placement was brilliant.
Further, we can easily imagine the celebrants hoisting a few beers at the party to come. And what would they drink if not Bud? Although this is not shown, it is the logical next step. It is where our mental associations take us. This ad is a true win/win. Bud gets good will from doing a good deed. A deserving person benefits; positive associations are generated. The associations are related to the product. Beer is drunk at celebrations and parties. Everyone feels good; let’s toast with a Bud.
To summarize: positive emotions and wonderful associations only affect sales and behavior towards a brand when they resonate with that brand. And the viewer has to know that the brand is involved. Bud has had it both ways. Perhaps it was to their advantage that the puppy love ad ran when fewer still were watching the game.
Mr. Weinberger is a professor of psychology at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University. He is also a practicing clinical psychologist. He can be reached via email@example.com.