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80 percent of Super Bowl ads will fail

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If, as Michael Horn, VP Research at Resonate, told us last year, a 30-second Super Bowl spot is "a $4 million gamble," then it's a very long shot.

The odds are 4:1 against you, according to a Communicus study. After interviewing 1,000 viewers both before and after the 2012 and 2013 gamnes, the Tuscon-based research firm found that 80 percent of Super Bowl commercials failed to sell product. That's even worse than cheaper, everyday commercials, whose failure rate was a mere 60 percent (3:2 odds, much closer to even money).

Before and after

Before each game, they asked consumers what they've bought recently and what they intend to buy (in advertised product categories) after Super Bowl Sunday. Two weeks later, they ask a similar set of questions again, to find out which commercials respondents remember and which brands they've bought. For categories like cars, which, according to R.L. Polk & Company, people buy on the average of once every six years, they measure intention to investigate a brand.

Conventional wisdom is dumb

Paradoxically, much of the conventional wisdom (AKA best practices) regarding Super Bowl advertising is a reason why spots fail on it.

One example is the theory that you need to be on the Super Bowl because everybody else in your category is advertising there. This is particularly true of car brands, sodas, and snacks and candy. In practice, your message ends up getting lost in the general blur. Most of automotive brands' commercials, for example, "go to the bottom of the list in terms of effectiveness because they all run together in people's minds," says Jeri Smith, Communicus CEO.

Another is the theory that because the Super Bowl reaches the year's largest television audience – one which tends to pay more attention to commercials than usual – you can achieve your marketing objectives by running only once. This, too, doesn't work so well in practice. "We find that one ad exposure often isn't enough to make anything happen," Smith notes. Though people remember having seen a Super Bowl commercial slightly more (44 vs. 32 percent) than one on regular programming with the same media weight as measured in gross rating points, they recall the brand name substantially less (35 vs. about 50 percent).

A third piece of conventional wisdom that often doesn't work is the idea that advertising is all about "storytelling." Last year's predictable Budweiser tear-jerker about a Clydesdale pony increased purchase intent, while Tide's very nice "Miracle Stain" spot didn't. Smith theorizes that it was because beer is an "affinity product" and laundry detergent isn't. But other factors were at work here. One is that laundry detergent purchase skews heavily female, and a "story" about a miraculous stain in the shape of Joe Montana's face skews male. Another is that the Budweiser audience – heavy beer drinkers – goes out and buys sixpacks far more often than wives and mothers buy 52-load containers of liquid Tide.

The only game in town?

For most advertisers, the Super Bowl is a bet you can't win or even break even at. Yet, next month some 43 advertisers will be betting big stacks of chips on it – a record $4.5 million per 30 seconds.

As Fox EVP Sports Sales Neil Mulcahy said, "The demand for in-game advertising time for Super Bowl XLVIII is actually greater than the supply." Or, to paraphrase what P. T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every 30 seconds."

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