Hey, Super Bowl Sponsors: Your Ads Are Already Forgotten

Pepsi's Super Bowl Halftime introduction spot Photograph by PRNewsFoto/PepsiCo via AP Photo

With Super Bowl ad rates averaging $4 million per 30 seconds, total spending for commercials during this year’s game approached $300 million.

Here’s the problem: Most of those commercials have already been forgotten. Based on exclusive research done for Bloomberg Businessweek by marketing-research firm Db5, a survey of audience respondents suggests they remembered less than 10 percent of Sunday’s commercials.

Despite what some so-called expert panels say about why certain ads are more successful than others, it’s likely those results are too biased or subjective to tell us which ads were truly memorable. Db5 surveyed 504 people who watched the game in its entirety, and the results are surprising.

Poor Recollection
When asked to recall as many companies as possible that had ads during the big game, the average viewer in the survey could name only 5.4 brands. With more than 50 companies buying ads, that means less than 10 percent were recalled. The top winners were Budweiser, Doritos, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and GoDaddy—the only brands with viewer recall rates of more than 25 percent. Just 12 companies saw more than 10 percent recollection rates; the vast majority saw less than 10 percent recall.

Even when viewers were given a sample list of advertisers and asked whether they remembered seeing an ad for each company, only 49 percent of those ads were recalled on average.

Daniel Goldstein, Db5′s chief strategy officer, is a former ad executive who has worked on several major Super Bowl campaigns (Pepsi, Doritos, Visa). He says everybody is trying to copy the “1984” Apple one-hit-wonder approach. “Apple was the first to prove you could air a commercial only one time, during the Super Bowl, and have it bring you a ton of follow-up attention, praise, and sales,” he says.

Since then, that phenomenon has created a monster. Talking animals, talking babies, talking animal babies, big celebrities, bikinis, big-name Hollywood directors—the list of gimmicks is endless. “The ad inventory is much bigger than human brain capacity,” Goldstein says. Most of the audience can’t keep up with all the tricks, and almost all the ads are quickly forgotten.

Let’s look at some trends that could have made a difference:

The most-remembered commercials came from companies who buy Super Bowl ads on an annual basis, such as Budweiser, Doritos, Coke, Pepsi, and GoDaddy. Despite USA Today claiming that GoDaddy’s ad was a loser, the audience data tells us it was in fact well-remembered by viewers. (TiVo also said GoDaddy had one of the four most watched ads of the entire game.)

One theory is that ads can be remembered better with advanced viewings, because they would give audiences more chances to see and process the spot. According to the data, however, that did not turn out to be the case. Ads that were seen for the first time did just as well as previously viewed ads:

Similarly, ads that were seen online in advance did not affect audience recall:

The famous USA Today poll ranking the best ads does have a real effect on the industry. “Heads roll based on this report,” says Goldstein. “Agencies and creatives feel significant heat if their ad does not perform well.” He still is amazed that companies would make such personnel decisions based on a real-time assessment of how funny the ad seems in a single moment. There is little patience for evaluation on how the ad performs a few days later, if it was remembered, and if it generated positive sales. According to the data, audience recall of the ads had almost no relationship to the newspaper’s annual scoreboard. With the exception of two obviously well-done outliers (Budweiser and Doritos), the scores tell us little:

A Never-Ending Question
The mathematical question for companies: Is 10 percent recall among 100 million people worth $4 million? With the increase of media fragmentation, there are so few opportunities to reach so many viewers at once. Goldstein says that this is not a knock against the Super Bowl as a platform for advertisers, but rather that advertisers should not waste such a big opportunity for which they paid big bucks. The one trend that does seem to work is consistently showing up year after year, making the money a worthwhile investment in the long run. If companies want to go big, they should be going big every year.