5 Mistakes Advertisers Make And How To Avoid Them

Kimberly A. Whitler
Written by Kimberly A. Whitler
super bowl
Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg© 2015 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

Every year, advertisers spend millions of dollars making and airing commercials for the Super Bowl, in the hopes of generating awareness and interest in their brands. With viewership estimated to be greater than 110,000,000 people, there is no other such opportunity to connect directly with so many Americans at one time. On top of that, the ads during the Super Bowl are every bit as important to most viewers as the game (and for some of us, even more important). Rather than skipping over ads, the Super Bowl is the one event when consumers tune in specifically to be entertained by ads.

Despite the importance of the big day, unfortunate mishaps are made and some ads fail to deliver. Below I highlight 5 common mistakes Super Bowl advertisers make and how to avoid them.

1. Be Clear

Ok, this is so obvious and basic, that it seems silly to have to mention. Yet, the 2018 Super Bowl’s lowest rated ad in USA Today’s Ad Meter was Diet Coke’s “Groove”. It was an ad that featured a woman drinking a diet coke and awkwardly dancing to music. What was the point of the ad? It was unclear. In my class on strategic positioning, I have students write down the central idea behind a series of ads. For some ads, it’s clear what the point of the ad is. For others, it isn’t. A basic deliverable is that your target shouldn’t have to guess what the point of the ad is.

2. Connect the Brand Benefit to the Drama in the Ad

Many ads are quite entertaining. However, for some, consumers can’t remember what brand was being advertised. The drama is disconnected from the product and there is a failure to integrate the two. During Super Bowl 2018, the Dorito’s / Mountain Dew commercials with Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman did an excellent job of integrating the “blazing hot” and “icy cool” product benefits into the ad (both visually through imagery and in copy) without sacrificing entertainment value. However, in 2019, the Dorito’s product isn’t integrated into the ad until the very end. Even then, there is nothing about the content of the ad that overtly connects to the product. I call these ads “brought to you by” because they have :29 of drama and then at the end, a banner pops up that has the brand logo. And in most cases, any number of brands would work because of the lack of clear integration.

3. Don’t be Overly Emotional or Dramatic

There are a number of ads that cross over the invisible threshold from authentic and compelling to manipulative and unbelievable (and this isn’t just on Super Bowl Sunday). It is an invisible line and hard to know when the ad has just enough drama to work versus tumbling over the edge into the abyss. One ad that didn’t work (was in the bottom quartile of ads during Super Bowl 2015) was Nationwide’s “Boy” ad about a child who had passed away. In contrast, Budweiser’s “Lost Dog” was the highest rated ad by USA Today’s Ad Meter that same year. The emotion about a lost dog finding his/her way home resonated. Part of the difference was that the Bud ad didn’t have any copy/voiceover—all of the drama was in the music and visuals. It wouldn’t have worked had there been voiceover. Poking fun at this phenomena, Stephen Colbert created the ad below. As you watch the ad, try and guess what the brand is that will emerge at the end of the ad. The end of the ad makes the point mentioned above (#2).

4. Stop Being Superficial on Serious Topics

As Brent Walker, EVP/CMO of c2bsolutions indicates, brands that use “virtue signaling instead of living one’s [authentic] principles induce the gag reflex”. Consumers want brands to care. But just as talking about a topic, such as gender pay inequality or social injustice #MeToo, doesn’t mean that a person internalizes it to the point where they take action and make a difference, the same is true for brands. Brands that advertise a point of view are creating skeptical and suspicious consumers who expect the brand to do more than talk. During Super Bowl 2017, Audi aired a dramatic ad about gender pay inequality called “Daughter”: “What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma?….” The copy hit on a serious social issue. The problem. What had Audi done other than that talk about the topic for :30 in the ad to address gender pay inequality? Of note, Audi reached out and indicated that they have initiatives in place now to drive gender pay equality, inclusion, and diversity.

5. Start Focusing on Social Impact Advertising

Instead of talking about social issues (e.g., Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity” ad), brands should embrace action over words. One of the highest scoring values-based advertising messages was for Budweiser’s 2018 “Stand by You” ad which focused on how the company had used its bottling plants to provide water for communities struck by natural disaster. The ad didn’t lecture, chide, or scold. It simply said what the company had done (and the heroes in the ad were rural manufacturing plant workers and truck drivers). This is the model that others should emulate. Don’t talk about values or what you care about. Make a difference. Only then should you say something about it—if at all. Just as people who talk about their terrific virtues are unbelievable…so are ads. While Audi’s 2015 ad was a miss, the 2019 ad was much better. Audi’s “cashew” ad incorporates drama, emotion, and a little humor. It focuses on the beauty of the car and a message about their commitment to make 1/3 of all models electric by 2025. While it would be better if they advertised what they had already accomplished versus what they hope to accomplish in the future, it is much stronger than their 2017 ad because the topic is actually related to automobiles, is therefore more relevant and more believable, and is focused on action. Of note, this is a beautiful car and I’d love to test drive it. And that is a good place to end because after all, the point of advertising is not to win an Ad Meter contest but to drive awareness, interest, and desire among the target.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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About Kimberly A. Whitler

As a former General Manager and CMO, who worked for nearly 20 years before getting a PhD and working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, I conduct research that focuses on helping the C-suite (and aspiring C-level marketers) better understand, develop, and lead marketing excellence.