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Super Bowl Advertising is Entertaining, but What’s the Return?


In this age of fragmented audiences and distracted viewers, capturing the attention of nearly 110,000,000 viewers in 53,000,000 households at the same time might appear to be an invaluable opportunity. This is why brands still jump at the chance to secure an ad spot during the Super Bowl—even though the going rate has climbed to between $3.5 and $4 million for 30 seconds, not including the production costs that typically climb over $5 million. But is this considerable investment actually worthwhile?

Accurately measuring the impact of traditional paid media is, of course, difficult. According to research from Nielsen, Super Bowl spots “achieve a 31% break-through and 93% higher likability” than typical ads. A study conducted by research firm Communicus, however, found that while 44% of people remember the average Super Bowl ad—compared to 32% of typical ad spots—only 35% of viewers are able to recall the brand mentioned in the ad—compared to 50% for standard ads. More importantly, the key metrics of purchase and intent to purchase were largely unaffected by Super Bowl ads. According to the longitudinal study, 60% of Super Bowl ads did not increase purchase intent and 80% didn’t lead to actual purchase.

This, of course, has long been considered the cost of doing business. When it comes to the Super Bowl, the buy-in is astronomical, but the bump in business it provides is invaluable—even if it represents a relatively small portion of the total reach. But then, when the novelty of the initial ad begins to fade, the new business it created trails off and it’s time to make a big ad buy once again.

Advertising pioneer John Wanamaker famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Though measurement of ad effectiveness has improved considerably since Wanamaker’s time, the fact remains that much of the strategy around ad buying—especially expensive ads in traditional media—is blind. It’s a deal that an increasing number of brands find hard to justify.

“At $4 million per 30-seconds,” says Joe Glennon, assistant professor of advertising at Temple University’s School of Media and Communications, “it’s almost impossible for an advertiser to see a return on that investment.” Instead of competing 30 seconds at a time, some brands are reorienting their marketing efforts, unlocking the inherent value of data through the use of experimental testing and analysis.

What if this money was invested in testing and optimization?

Even knowing the return on Super Bowl ads is typically weak, it’s hard not to feel envious of brands showcasing a funny, touching or inspiring piece of creative entertainment during one of the most popular live television events of the year. But instead of coveting these flashy ads, we should admire the brands using testing and optimization to produce a measurable increase in key metrics for their business.

Lenovo, for example, has used testing and analytics to realize and eight-times return on every dollar spent building its program.

Another example comes from a somewhat obscure blender manufacturer. Through careful analysis of its “Will it Blend” campaign, Blendtec has been able to attribute a measurable lift in sales every time the company posts a video to YouTube. The cost of each simple video? Around $10.

These examples only scratch the surface. EA software increased game pre-orders by 43% through testing. Brooks Brothers increased key metrics by 40% and gained essential insights about customer behavior. Clothing retailer Threadless increased mobile conversions by eight times through a similar process.

Perhaps the biggest value of these wins is that they do not stand in isolation. Unlike traditional ad campaigns—which have a limited run and thus, limited impact—testing is an iterative process, with each experiment providing data that can inform the next.

So this year, when you hunker down to catch the flashy ads during the Super Bowl, don’t feel jealous. Instead, resolve to double-down on your testing investment with the confidence that each dollar spent will lead to an actual, measurable return for your business.