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October 5, 2015

What Makes a Great Super Bowl Ad (and What Should Be Avoided)?

by Joel Keller, posted Feb 4th 2011 3:00PM
The infamous Leno-Letterman-Oprah ad from Super Bowl XLIV
On Sunday night, tens of millions of people will hunker down in front of their TVs to take in an entertaining pastime that has left people enraptured for decades.

And there's also going to be a game on.

Yes, we're talking about the ads during the Super Bowl, the only time during the year when a collective "Shhhh!" goes up when the commercials start. For over 30 years now, we've been programmed to expect big, ambitious ads during the game, and almost every year at least one or two get stuck in our brains.

But there are also hundreds of ads that have been forgotten, either because they went for broke and missed, tried to amp up the laughs to the opposite effect, or were just plain boring.

So, what are the keys to a good Super Bowl ad? What makes one suck? Follow us after the jump to find out.

What Works

1. Celebrities. They could be big stars, like Cindy Crawford in her early-'90s Pepsi ads, or Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in the "Nothin' but net!" McDonald's ads, but the better celebrity ads show them doing something unexpected. The ad that many consider the first "big" Super Bowl ad had the Steelers' Mean Joe Green give his jersey to a kid who gave him a Coke. But a better example is last year's Betty White Snickers commercial:

2. Huge surprises. The bigger surprise an ad contains the better, especially if it incorporates big stars. Besides Betty White, everyone remembers the Letterman-Oprah-Leno ad from last year because it was so unexpected. How many people pulled a muscle reaching for their cell phones to Twitter about that ad?

3. Ads that are humongous in scale. Five years after Mean Joe Green, the folks at Apple really stepped up the game when it comes to Super Bowl ads, with the '1984'-themed ad that introduced the original Macintosh. Why do people remember it 27 years later? Because it dared to be huge in scale, looking more like a movie than a commercial, in an era when the best you could do with CGI was the 'Money for Nothing' video. Many ads have tried to replicate the scale and have failed.

4. A buzzword that sticks in the brain. You know what? By mid-2000, anyone who greeted you with "Whaaaazzzzup?" deserved to get brained. But that was only because the Bud "Whaaaazzzzup" ads had permeated pop culture so completely at that point. Eleven years later, you probably still have some lame friends greeting you by saying "Whaaaazzzzup?" with their tongues sticking out -- a lasting effect you can't really say about most Super Bowl ads.

5. A clever sense of humor. It always helps if the spot is clever, especially if that ad has big stars in it. Michael J. Fox's Diet Pepsi ad from the mid-'80s winked at the viewer. CareerBuilder's "Working With Chimpanzees" ads elicited knowing nods from office drones across the country. And FedEx has always given viewers more than just slapstick. In fact, a 2005 ad did exactly what this article is doing now, but with funnier results:

What Doesn't Work

1. Animals farting and people getting injured.
In other words, every Bud or Bud Light ad since 2001. Even if the FedEx spot above lists "groin kick" as an element for a successful Super Bowl ad, those ads are really only funny the first time you see them. After 10 years, we now expect some Bud ad where a person falls out of a tree or a horse lets loose with a smelly one, and that expectation makes it far less funny.

2. Making the ad the same tone and scale as your regular ads. Pretty much almost every car and movie commercial during the Super Bowl elicits snores. Why? Because they don't look any different from their regular ads. You see a car drive through a desert or on a racetrack or at night or on a mountain, just like every other day. You see the movie's best clips, just like any other time of year. It's such a boring category, let's showcase a more inspired auto ad -- the GM robots from a few years back -- to show what a car company can do if it thinks outside the box:

3. Not explaining your product. Remember all those "dot-com" Super Bowl ads from about a decade ago? A lot of them were clever, but none of them explained what exactly those companies actually did. It's probably the reason why many of those companies are out of business -- they couldn't leverage the ad into any kind of brand awareness.

Currently, GoDaddy has that problem. Sure, they can have a "risqué" and "banned" ad every year where Danica Patrick or some other attractive celeb "gets naked" and teases you to view the rest on their website. But, unless you're in the market for a domain name or Web server, do you know what GoDaddy actually does? The ads have been running for five years now and people still don't know.

4. Talking babies. Please, E-Trade, let this be the last year we see them. We beg you.

Tell us: What do you think makes for a good Super Bowl ad?

Follow @joelkeller on Twitter and on Facebook.

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BJ Wanlund

I've got 2 more of each for you.

What Works:
Ads with cartoon characters that are well-known and beloved by 99.9% of the television viewing audience. Example: The Wile E. Coyote Pepsi ads from the 90s. (Yes, it had Deion Sanders too, but nobody remembers that)

Movie trailers that actually make a movie MORE exciting. See: just about everything Disney and Pixar have thrown at us in the last couple of years.

What Doesn't Work:
Ads with STUPID gimmicks where not everybody knew about the special thing you had to get at the store to see the ad, like with the Monsters & Aliens commercial several years back. That was LAME! SO LAME!

Tired old Internet memes that have to persist for at least one more year, one more ad, like the CarMax animal ads.

February 04 2011 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Droid Xer

Best car ad was the Godfather Audi tribute introducing the R8.


February 04 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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