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What makes a Super Bowl ad successful? An ad exec explains.

Super Bowl ads cost $5 million on average, but some brands still miss the mark.

Doritos’s Super Bowl ads have struck a chord with fans.
A Doritos ad plays during the Super Bowl.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A 2017 Super Bowl ad featuring a sexy Mr. Clean trended on social media, became talk show fodder, and resulted in an uptick in buzz for the brand. But it did not significantly sway more customers to go out and mop their floors with the product.

Companies pay a whopping $5 million to run a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl. That lofty price tag might be worth it for some companies; after all, more than 111 million Americans tuned in for the big game in 2018. But for others, having a commercial air during the most-watched sporting event of the year may be a bad investment. Some ads simply don’t strike a chord with customers, and others may trend on social media but still fail to inspire viewers to actually buy the product marketed.

Smart companies do more than chase cheap laughs and passing trends on Super Bowl Sunday, according to Dan Granger, CEO and founder of Los Angeles ad agency Oxford Road, which has worked with clients such as Hulu, Lyft, Blue Apron, DollarShaveClub, Ring, and ZipRecruiter.

Granger measures what he considers to be the best and worst Super Bowl ads from an investment standpoint. Each year, Oxford Road issues a detailed report to identify which Super Bowl ads were hits and misses. The 71-measurement scoring system assesses components such as the set-up of the commercials, their value proposition, positioning, and execution.

“I think there is no question the single biggest waste of ad dollars across the board has to be the way the sponsors handle the investment directly correlating to business growth,” Granger says. In other words, some companies spend a ton of money on ads without a message that will actually bring them new customers.

Granger has given his expert opinion about Super Bowl commercials and other kinds of ads to publications such as the Financial Times. I spoke with him about which ads have gotten it right and which ones fell short. Granger has also seen the teasers for the Super Bowl commercials that will run this year and made some predictions about the ads most likely to pay off after the game airs on February 3.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and flow.

So which Super Bowl ads were the losers and winners last year?

When we look at last year, it was a tale of two cellular service providers, [Sprint and T-Mobile]. T-Mobile’s commercial had almost nothing to do with their business or anything related to their value proposition.

During the commercial, a camera pans over several babies. The voiceover mentions how these babies will be “connected,” but there was no obvious link to T-Mobile as a company.

Watching the ad, I was asking myself, “What does this have to do with my cell phone service?” But Sprint’s ad was on message and focused. It was very masterfully delivered.

What about the Sprint ad stood out to you?

You’ve got a bunch of robots making fun of this scientist for his cell phone. (He’s using Verizon instead of Sprint.) And the old Verizon pitchman comes in at the end, and it was so cool, totally engaging.

Ads that stay on the message are the best investments a company can make in your opinion. But what about ads that get a lot of social media buzz, even if they don’t lead to more sales?

The problem with social engagement is if it doesn’t really correlate with strong product sales. If the brand ad is entertaining and persuasive and that triggers people to talk about it on social media, then you’ve really done a great job. But being likable and entertaining — that’s not really how you make a $5 million investment.

Besides the Sprint ad, what’s a 2018 Super Bowl commercial you found to be entertaining and effective?

The Stella Artois ad with Matt Damon was not only clever and very good, it was substantive. They were able to get your attention and call people to make an impact, so they would actually engage with the brand. Stella is asking the customer how they can do right for the brand by giving clean water to those who need it, but they’re not alienating anyone.

Some Super Bowl ads with a social message have caused controversy, like the 2017 Budweiser ad about the company’s founder immigrating to the US. Some people took that as a dig at Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

I think it cuts both ways with so many brands getting controversial. It can feel like people are jumping on the bandwagon of the latest PC cause. I think these sorts of commercials can be done well, but usually they’re not done. With the Gillette ad, customers said, “I don’t want to get a lesson on being a man, a husband, and a father from Gillette. I don’t come to you for my values.” Customers don’t like it when they feel they’re being beaten over the head with a message.

So customers tend to like fun ads the best?

Yes, like the ad with Doritos and Mountain Dew that Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman did for the 2018 Super Bowl; that was a good one. [It shows them lip syncing to Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot songs.] But ads featuring snacks and beverages have a little bit more leeway to be entertainment-driven.

What about the ads for the 2019 Super Bowl? You’ve seen the teasers.

Yes, there’s going to be a Doritos ad with the Backstreet Boys and Chance the Rapper. Chance awkwardly steps into the middle of the group’s dance routine. There’s some fun chemistry, and they’re using a little bit of nostalgia and somebody whose modern too.

Also Michael Bublé is starring in a Bubly commercial. You’ll see him in the grocery store changing the name on Bubly cans to make them say Bublé. Bumble will have an ad with Serena Williams, and that might get preachy.

And there’s Skittles the musical with Michael C. Hall. It’s entertaining, and it should be. I don’t want Skittles to tell me what they think about the government shutdown. They need to do something fun and relevant. That’s because when I think about the Super Bowl, I think America’s Got Talent for brands.

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