On Sunday, the Super Bowl once again served up a batch of funny, cool, and even moving commercials. For decades now, Super Bowl commercials have continued to impress and touch us with a car starting Darth Vader kid, a horse-befriending dog, a 1984 rule breaking Apple user, a Pepsi drinking Cindy Crawford, and on and on.
This has left many wondering: why aren’t all commercials as good as the Super Bowl commercials? If business can make such great ads, why don’t they always do so?
To answer these questions, we need to remember the real purpose of any advertisement is: to be effective. Unfortunately for viewers, ads don’t need to be good to to be effective.
The Super Bowl is a rare case where the audience is paying full attention expecting greatness. This environment allows the ads to be complex, nuanced, and entertaining.
However, outside the Super Bowl, ads have to play an entirely different game. Many everyday-ads have to fight to win the attention of highly distracted TV viewers, who are often channel surfing or multitasking. Many viewers don’t even look at the screen as they play on their computers, clean, or get ready for work.
This means the ads cannot tell an extended story about a puppy returning home like the #BestBuds Budweiser ad from this year. These ads only work during times like the Super Bowl when people say, “Be quiet the commercials are on!”
Instead, everyday ads must be loud, aggressive, and full of brand references. They must grab viewers’ attention and increase awareness.
Businesses want their products to enter into what market researchers call consumers’ “consideration set,” – the few products that come to mind when consumers thinks about a product category. This is often accomplished through annoying ads or unconscious mental processes, and can come at the expense of quality.
This means ads like Coke’s 2015 Super Bowl spot #MakeItHappy, though cool or even inspiring, do not work well during the average commercial break. For instance this 2015 Coke ad features a somewhat complex premise with multiple lines of evolving text that require reading. And there’s no helpful guiding narration. The result: it is a super engaging ad, but only for viewers who are already engaged. This advertisement would not stand a chance during a Good Morning America commercial break, while a parent focuses primarily on prepping a child’s lunch.
Finally, most normal ads get heavy rotation. This means the ads need to be effective over relentless viewings. Many Super Bowl ads rely on a twist, shock factor, or a heartfelt narrative. Excessive viewings of these types of ads can lead to a loss of value and could even cause backfire effects.
For instance, the “edgy” 1984 Apple ad could lose its edge with each viewing. One can think of a Super Bowl ad like an amazing artsy song—great, but not for every moment—and everyday ads like the second radio single from any Maroon 5 album—mundane but infinitely digestible.
The Bigger Lesson
When we contrast Super Bowl ads with normal ads, we learn a powerful business lesson: being effective does not always mean being good. It’s a lesson many of us find hard to swallow, but it’s a bitter pill we all need to take.
Quality has its place in TV advertising and so too does effective mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter is usually the norm. Yet, we can all be thankful that for one evening each winter, the stars align such that what makes an advertisement effective is also what makes it enjoyable.
By Troy Campbell
@TroyHCampbell studies marketing as it relates to identity, beliefs, and enjoyment here at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. In Fall 2015 he will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon Lundquist College of Business.