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Alexa, Show Me the Best Super Bowl Ad

By Kelly Sarabyn

The Super Bowl is not only the largest televised event on the planet — it’s one of the rare times when viewers actively tune in to watch the advertisements. Every brand with deep enough pockets wants to take advantage of this golden opportunity, and this year’s crop of ads demonstrated the difference between those that hit their mark, or fell flat: story.

With a price tag of around 5 million per spot, companies are presumably bringing their creative “A game” to crafting any ad that runs during the big game. Yet, some spots were instantly forgettable. John Hopkins researcher Keith Quesenberry’s classic analysis of 108 Super Bowl ads demonstrated that what makes for a winning ad is not celebrity cameos, humor, or cute animals, but having a strong narrative arc. In 2018, this principle proved true once again.

Pass Me a Beer — or a Water

Beer is always one of the most popular products featured in Super Bowl ads. Budweiser and Stella Artois both tried a new approach, and showcased their commitment to providing clean water to those in need. This is philosophically valid: connecting viewers with a higher purpose (providing clean water) over product marketing is the exact type of thinking that builds brand affinity. Even though the two companies were aiming to connect with their audiences over identical messages, only Budweiser was successful in pulling it off. Its ad ranked number 3 on USA Today’s Ad Meter, while Stella Artois’s came in at a mediocre number 24.

Budweiser’s ad follows a classic narrative arc, centering on a real employee who wakes up in the middle of the night to can water at the Budweiser plant, and ending with a list of places the water was being sent to. Experienced through the eyes of the employees, Budweiser’s journey to deliver clean water where it is most needed comes across as authentic and emotionally resonant.

The actual narrative creates a powerful connection to the viewer, too. There’s a clear visual connection between the cans of water and a can of Budweiser beer, and since they both originate from the same place, there’s a direct connection made between the viewers decision to support clean water efforts with their own purchase of Bud.

Stella Artois’s ad, in contrast, is primarily Matt Damon talking about how easy it is for viewers to get clean water, as opposed to people in the developing world who often must undergo great hardship for something so simple. Interspersed with Damon’s comments are short clips of different people flashing across the scene, but none stay long enough to form an emotional connection with the viewer. Not only is Damon’s speech dry, it seems vaguely preachy. No one is inspired by a lecture, even if it is from Matt Damon.

Stella Artois’s ad places Matt Damon at the center of the story, and is focused on the brand’s efforts, with an implication of talking down to the viewer. Budweiser puts individual employees, and the good work they are accomplishing, at the heart of the story. The viewer is left not only with the direct message that Budweiser cares about clean water, but also messaging around how the company values its employees, and a clear connection between the product they might purchase and a cause.

These results aren’t shocking. No matter how positive an underlying message (providing clean water) is, without a compelling story to communicate it, it is difficult to forge an emotional connection with the audience. As Quesenberry puts it, “People are drawn to and give their attention to story.”

How the Best Super Bowl Ads Use Story

Though it was only released online due to a pricing dispute with NBC, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) created a powerful Super Bowl ad for its core cause. PETA stakes out an extreme position true to its brand, yet, like Budweiser, crafted a compelling narrative around a reluctant hero, and a regretful villain. For a controversial brand, this approach was effective in causing viewers to think no matter what their views.

PETA’s ad focused on a meat company marketing executive confessing his lies about the company’s treatment of the animals to his priest — explaining, for example, that “free range chicken” is anything but. At first the priest is receptive, giving the executive penance, but as the marketing executive continues to talk about how poorly the animals are treated, the priest concludes the executive has gone too far, and can’t be forgiven. The ad ends by imploring the audience to join the hero, and save the animals.

By having a priest, who is supposed to offer a path to forgiveness for any sin, refuse to offer this to the marketing executive, PETA (controversially) heightens the importance of the issue. Overall, the ad not only has high drama, it makes the viewer think, and sends the message that PETA is a serious organization, dedicated to change.

The PETA ad is also an illustration of how a compelling narrative can inspire its audience to action. In the penultimate scene, the priest is rallied to declare the meat executive’s actions as irredeemable, but the priest does not alter the underlying situation, and nor does the marketing executive find the redemption he was seeking. The satisfying resolution to the mistreatment of animals by meat companies is left to the audience: by becoming vegans, the meat executive might be put out of work, and the priest’s fearless condemnation will have mattered.

Even though the stakes are not as high as the PETA ad, Amazon Alexa’s ad also has a compelling narrative arc that resonated, and this arc drove the ad to the number one spot in USA Today’s Ad Meter. The ad starts with Alexa losing her voice, and a concerned Jeff Bezos being reassured by an employee that “replacements” were ready. A series of celebrities take Alexa’s place, responding when different people, in their own houses, ask a question to Alexa. The consumers are stunned by the celebrities’ unusual answers, which are alternatively funny or captivating. The ad concludes with Alexa’s return, and peace being restored.

Amazon Alexa’s commercial is particularly effective because, by taking Alexa out of commission, it implicitly showcases all the different tasks Alexa accomplishes for people, from playing music, to calling friends, to setting the mood for a party. And, in the end, the viewers feel a sense of relief that she is back, and the imposters (as amusing as they are) are gone. The ad has a memorable arc but also, more importantly, one that sends the right message about the brand.

Forgettable Super Bowl Ads

Stella Artois had plenty of company in airing a Super Bowl ad that failed to captivate. A Groupon ad, for example, starring the likable Tiffany Haddish consists of nothing more than her lauding the support of local businesses, and an older white man in a mansion who scoffs at local businesses, and is then pegged in the stomach with a football. This ad represents a persistent miscalculation among brands — that having a likable celebrity or influencer endorse a product is enough to inspire an audience. Even though celebrities can attract an audience’s attention, without a compelling story, the ad will still fail, no matter how star-studded. The Groupon ad (like the Stella Artois ad) illustrates how even popular celebrities cannot carry an ad, without a compelling plot.

Another brand that missed the mark is Bud Light, whose low-ranking ad attempts to execute a humorous narrative, but instead presents a cobbled together series of events that fail to form a coherent story. In the spot, a bunch of people are fighting in a field in middle-age clothing (it’s unclear who is on which side) when the “Bud Knight” arrives, and the leader of one side is relieved.

Instead of rescuing his side (whichever it is) the Bud Knight announces he has to be on his way to a 30th birthday party. When one of the fighters points out they will probably die, then, the Bud Knight releases his sword, which magically appears to vanquish some of the fighters. “Wow, somebody likes attention,” the leader of the fighters utters. Mysteriously, a voiceover then states, “Here’s to the friends you can always count on.”

Bud Light has been running a series of ads for the last quarter around the medieval “friends you can count on” concept, with the slogan “Dilly Dilly” attached to it. This particular ad might have almost worked as part of a larger narrative if the viewer has seen all of the previous spots, but since the Super Bowl audience is so uniquely large, the ultimate effect was to confuse the large part of the audience that wasn’t “in on the joke.”

Most likely this was Bud Light’s attempt to appeal to young men, but the mixing of a confusing battle with the “cool indifference” of the “Bud Knight,” and the casual destruction at the end does not come together to express any coherent message. It’s not clear who is supposed to be the hero in the story, and how that relates to the average beer-drinker. This fraternity house meets Game of Thrones knock-off is more likely to perplex than captivate its intended audience.

Old Habits Die Hard

Successful ads, like Budweiser’s and Amazon Alexa’s, have a powerful narrative arc that not only capture the viewers’ attention, but ensure viewers will remember the ad — and the brand — in the right light. Ads that rely on celebrity cameos, crude humor, or a disjointed sequence of events, might attract fleeting attention, but they are unlikely to build any lasting equity for the brand.

Only by a brand knowing its fundamental brand story can it successfully implement this core purpose in its outward messaging. Brands like Amazon, PETA, and Budweiser know what they stand for, and this provides a metric by which they can create and craft all of their advertisements. Brands that don’t know what they stand for will often fall back on cheap stunts, celebrity cameos, and crude humor to try to attract attention. Such tricks fail to resonate with audiences, or maintain any kind of staying power. Not only that, more often than not, they send an unflattering message about the brand. Only by using story — in crafting their core purpose, and the external messaging, like advertisements, that derives from that purpose — can brands forge powerful emotional connections with their audiences.

Kelly Sarabyn is a manager at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.