Hot wings with celery sticks and blue cheese. Seven layer taco dip. BBQ pulled pork sliders. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. All are part of the perfect recipe for the quintessential Super Bowl Experience— but it wouldn’t be complete without the final ingredient: a healthy dose of multimillion-dollar commercials.
The annual Super Bowl is, without a doubt, a career highlight for the players and coaches who have spent a lifetime wading through blood, sweat, tears, and an endless river of Gatorade to make it this far. And as they hit the turf, so do the advertisers.
As an estimated 115 million viewers prepare to tune in for Super Bowl LI, how many of them stop to wonder how these memorable commercials became the $5 million cultural phenomenon they are today? Just as importantly, how do companies and ad agencies cook up a winning formula that generates enough buzz to end up at the top of everybody’s Facebook Feed come Monday morning?
The key to a great Super Bowl commercial, as it turns out, has very little to do with the product itself.
In January 1967, the Doors released their first album, gas was 33 cents per gallon, and Lipton Onion Dip had just become an American household mainstay.
It was also in January 1967—on the 15th, to be exact—that America witnessed the first ever AFL-NFL World Championship, later to be known as Super Bowl I, when the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs clashed at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Some 51 million people tuned in for that game, but it wasn’t until six years later, in 1973, that advertisers managed to crack the Super Bowl commercial formula.
That year, in a 30-second ad spot that cost $42,000, football player Joe Namath and Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett lent their endorsement to Noxzema Shave Cream, with the catchline “Let Noxzema cream your face”.
Spearheaded by the Madison Avenue ad men who have since become immortalized by the TV show Mad Men, the commercial was a blowout success that took American living rooms by storm. “I’m so excited, I’m gonna get creamed,” declares Namath, before Fawcett sensually slathers his face with the shave cream product.
This near-seamless blend of football slang and sexual innuendo—not to mention a very healthy dose of relevant celebrity endorsement—immediately resonated with legions of football fans. Just as important, it was entertaining, it sparked conversations, and it drove a new kind of awareness to the brand.
“Celebrity endorsement goes way back, hundreds of years,” says consumer historian Richard Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands.
“If the King or the Queen were using a particular product, then you would feel that you could use that product safely, or you would recognize that it had a quality which you felt you could also use. It’s also about associating yourself with somebody famous, somebody you admire, or somebody you recognize.”
Endorsing a particular item in the 1800s is one thing, but how does that translate to shave cream in the world of modern advertising, and how does it work so well?
“Having a celebrity endorsement is essentially one tiny step further away from your friend saying something is bloody good,” explains Opie. “You trust your friend, so you will also trust–perhaps not quite to the same extent, or perhaps even more so–somebody you admire and feel you have a relationship with, even though you’ve never met.”
In a sense, we think of our favorite brands in much the same way as we think about our inner circle of friends; we’ve come to trust them over the years, and we prefer to keep hold of this relationships rather than experiment with others. However, if a new brand comes along, and has something very interesting to say by way of a clever ad concept or celebrity endorsement, it can take an immediate and quick route towards gaining our trust.
As expected, the cultural effect of that single Super Bowl commercial catapulted Noxzema further into mainstream culture and proved just how effective a television commercial could be. But today, unlike in 1973, advertisers are facing the additional challenge of viral videos and an endless sea of content competing for audience attention—despite there being more viewers than ever before.
So how do companies and their agencies ensure that—at $5 million per 30-second spot—they get the most out of every $170,000 second? And as for the rest of us, how can we recognize and better appreciate what makes an amazing Super Bowl commercial so great?
A Winning Play
“Put simply, a great television commercial, Super Bowl or not, is one that you actually want to watch; it entertains you, and if it’s repeated, you still want to watch it,” explains Opie. “There are so many TV commercials that have been very clever and engaging. However, there are also TV commercials that do a brilliant job of engaging, but after watching them you can’t remember what they’re actually promoting. A successful commercial engages the viewer, promotes the product, and prevents the viewer from moving onto something else that they’re more urgently wanting to do.”
Since that 1973 Noxzema commercial moment, the most memorable Super Bowl commercials have tapped into the vein of American mainstream culture at just the right time with just the right touch. More often than not, the most successful of these have left Super Bowl audiences with a sharper recollection of specific commercials than of the teams playing that year.
While celebrity endorsement proved to be a winning strategy, it wasn’t the only one.
In 1984 a young Steve Jobs was on the verge of opening up a new era of household computers with the original Apple Macintosh. Inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, he commissioned visionary sci-fi director Ridley Scott to create a 60-second film to introduce the idea that the new age of home computing would ensure that “1984 won’t be like 1984.” This concept of elevating the television commercial into a short film not only redefined how a product could be sold, but what a commercial could be. And that’s why, even today, you’ll likely find someone who can tell you more about this memorable ad than who was playing at the Super Bowl in 1984 (hint: the Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Redskins 38 to 9).
More recently, in 2011, Volkswagen successfully tugged at America’s heartstrings when they introduced a tiny Darth Vader, engaged in a struggle to harness the Force. After many failed attempts to levitate various household objects including his mom’s stationary exercise bike and the family dog, young Darth finally succeeds in his quest. The Force is with him, and he successfully starts the engine of his dad’s 2012 Volkswagen Passat, completely unaware that Dad, watching him through the kitchen window, has given him a ‘boost’ with his remote car starter. This perfect combination of nostalgia and humor helped catapult the ad—and subsequently, awareness of the 2012 Volkswagen Passat—into conversations for weeks following the Super Bowl.
As one YouTube user explains, “This is and will be my favorite ad of all time. It captured Vader so hilariously. Bending an evil character to something that is funny 35 years later is a piece of art. They successfully combined every man’s childhood fantasy with a man’s car. Best ad ever.”
Go Hard or Go Home
With the rise of social media and second or even third screens giving audiences more choices for content than ever before, the challenge is on for advertisers to continue raising the bar with better stories year after year. Those who will succeed in this cloudy landscape are those willing to relentlessly keep their finger on the pulse while taking calculated risks.
“It’s an evolving story; we’re only just beginning,” says Opie. “The media will follow where the crowds are looking, but the crowds have gotten so fragmented that it is becoming more and more difficult for advertisers to see where the future is, and to see the diverse ways their message is going to be split. Inevitably, the ingenious people in the media business will suss out what is working for them, and continue to lead the way.”
The advertising world has an old adage: you spend your budget and half of it works; the problem is you don’t know which half it is. This was just as true for a department store merchant in the 1800s as it is today.
While research can certainly guide the process, it’s almost impossible to know where money is spent to the best effect. What we do know is that if companies can create irresistible content that excites audiences, few people will mind its function as a promotional vehicle. This has been true throughout advertising history and will always be the winning formula: what creates interest creates engagement. And what creates engagement creates awareness.
“The bottom line is that you make something exciting and people will pick up on it, because it becomes something they want to engage in, and want to tell somebody else to engage in,” adds Opie. “So it’s all about what one might term ‘inner-communication’ and ‘personal communication’ and ‘personal recommendation’, which inevitably, is the best form of promoting anything.”