Pro digital marketers explain how to measure the success of a Super Bowl commercial

Every late January or early February, Americans are treated to a dazzling performance — a show put on by professionals who are at the absolute top of their game. This annual gathering is now a national tradition, an enduring display of all-American values.

Memories that will last a lifetime are forged in the crucible of this midwinter’s eve and soundtracked by a thunderous chorus of onlookers poised at the edge of their seats, cheering at every highlight and groaning at every misstep.

I’m talking, of course, about Super Bowl commercials.

Yes, Super Bowl commercials have become as much a mainstay of American culture as apple pie and the outdoor BBQ. They give us a glimpse into the inner workings of the world’s top brands, producers, and thought leaders, and they dominate post-game water cooler discussion.

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The legendary Super Bowl spots of Michael Jordan and Larry Bird playing HORSE for a McDonald’s Big Mac

Of course, this is the advertising business, and we know that these Super Bowl commercials are meant to do more than just entertain. They’re a highly effective (and highly expensive) way that companies can catapult themselves onto the global stage and build brand equity.

But as data-hungry digital marketers who take a ‘measure everything’ approach to our advertising, a Super Bowl TV spot presents its own unique quirks and challenges. These commercials often aren’t meant to move a single, specific product — almost without exception, they’re an advertisement for the company as a whole. Super Bowl commercials for big-ticket items like cars are more likely to put a spotlight on the manufacturer’s entire fleet of vehicles, rather than an individual make or model.

So: How then can we measure the effectiveness of a Super Bowl spot?

It’s a question without an easy answer. To help us crack this riddle, we got in touch with two of CallRail’s top agency users and asked them some questions about how they’d execute and analyze their own Super Bowl commercials. (Assuming they had a sky’s-the-limit budget, of course.)

The answers were funny, illuminating and — in more than one case — a little surprising.

Julian Reiche, Director of Paid Media at Northern

1) If you were gifted a $5 million Super Bowl spot for either yourself or a client, how would you measure results?

I would try to determine sales lift when it first ran and the weeks after, by running year-over-year comparisons to try and isolate incrementality. If it was an e-commerce or lead gen client that had international customers, responses from that segment of the customer base could even act as a ‘control’ market.

Having worked with brands that move anywhere from 6 to 8 figures in revenue, I am a big believer in this quote by David Ogilvy: “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” Direct response ads can be a great way to boost brand recall, if done correctly.

2) What are your general thoughts on the future of mass-impression, legacy marketing? Will these spots remain expensive, or drop in price, as more segmented, trackable methods become available?

I think there are two things that may save mass-impression, legacy marketing: First, a new startup with a leaner business model comes to market that offers Out-of-home ads at a price that is competitive and proportionate to the amount of attention they have.

Another alternative is for legacy media to starts incorporating open auctions, which enable advertisers to buy media when it is most likely to drive business results.

3) What do you tell clients who are infatuated with legacy advertising channels, like billboards and radio ads?

Does your message offer appeal to a broad enough audience? Is it seasonally the right time for your business for a push message?

Start tracking and testing it! Do split market tests, monitor your Google trends, or at least leverage some sort of tracking like a CallRail phone number. In the latter scenario, if the calls from the number even break even, then you are doing well as there is a ton of value not being captured. (It’s similar to when you put a coupon or promo code in your advertisement, but your audience doesn’t use it.)

4) Did you have a favorite Super Bowl ad? What did you like about it?

Overall I felt some of them were a bit cringeworthy, and a little exhausting — it was like watching a playlist of ’20 viral marketing videos’.

But I did enjoy the Oil of Olay commercial, it was an ad that I think was a really nice fit for the Super Bowl (which is one of the few times you can count on 15-second or greater view times). The commercial is definitely a departure from traditional brand ads, and their brand search traffic reflects a significant lift. It’s too bad companies don’t release their brand lift polling after they run a Super Bowl commercial.

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By Reebok: Terry Tate, Office Linebacker. (“You kill the joe, you make some mo!”)

Alicia LaPann, Creative Director at Mole Street

1) If you were gifted a $5 million Super Bowl spot for either yourself or a client, how would you measure results?

Social currency is everything. The first data we’d measure would be mentions on social — hashtag usage, comments, shares, engagements, and video views. Are Instagram and Twitter all aflutter from our ad? We sure hope so.

2) What are your general thoughts on the future of mass-impression, legacy marketing? Will these spots remain expensive, or drop in price, as more segmented, trackable methods become available?

Everyone loves a good story, and TV is a great format for storytelling. The copywriter in me wants to continue to see this format thrive, but the advertising world is truly changing, and it has been for decades!

There are some amazing artists out there creating super-sticky, snackable video content for a fraction of the cost, and consumers are eating them up. We are excited to see video storytelling continuing to become available to all brands online, not just the ones with the biggest budget.

3) What do you tell clients who are infatuated with legacy advertising channels, like billboards and radio ads?

We tell them they’ve dialed the wrong number.

4) Did you have a favorite Super Bowl ad? What did you like about it?

I laughed out loud at the Bud Lite corn syrup ad. Game of Thrones mentions aside, I loved that Bud Lite figured out how to take a simple message (“no corn syrup”) and used humor to let this message really sink in for viewers.

Ridley Scott’s iconic ‘1984’-themed commercial for the debut of Apple’s Macintosh personal computer

The qualitative angle: A window into cultural anxieties around tech

So we now have a better grasp of how to measure the bang-for-buck we get from Super Bowl commercials. But this all begs another, bigger question: What does it all mean?

We’ve just laid the groundwork for solid quantitative analysis of a Super Bowl spot. But what about a qualitative analysis of the top 2019 Super Bowl commercials? Marketers are missing out on some critical insights if they skip this part of the research process.

Super Bowl commercials are more than just high-powered statements of intent from the world’s top brands and companies. They can be a window into our collective unconscious — a pulse-check about our society’s hopes, our fears, and what we expect the future to look like.

Or, as Ready Set Rocket creative director Aaron Harvey told Adweek last year: “The goal of this of advertising is to prove that a brand has always been a part of the culture, and create a story where the brand can be the hero.”

Everything old is new again, and more than a handful of this year’s Super Bowl commercials were decidedly backward-looking. These spots leaned heavily on our nostalgia for times gone, and the pop-culture artifacts of the past — much like Sarah Michelle Geller’s Scream-throwback for Oil of Olay.

But there was an even more striking theme that unified the Super Bowl commercials of 2019: Fear and uncertainty over the direction of a society increasingly dominated by technology, robotics, and automation.

Among a host of others, high-profile brands like Michelob Ultra, Simplisafe, Pringles, and Sprint all produced commercial spots where technology served as either a foe or foil.The most on-the-nose of these ads came from TurboTax, which featured an interview with a childlike robot who aspired to, one day, become a certified public accountant:

TurboTax had a simple message for the 2019 Super Bowl: Silly robot, taxes are for humans!

All in all, there were at least six 2019 Super Bowl commercials that featured robots or AI-powered voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa. And in each of these ads, humans and machines are either compared to each other or are in direct competition with each other.

For all of these ads, the message was the same: Robots are smarter than us, more capable than us, and before too long, they’re probably going to take our jobs. But hey, at least we’ll have Pringles and Michelob Ultra along for the ride!

As marketers, we should be only too familiar with this feeling — the advertising industry, like so many others, is being disrupted by technology. Not only is tech changing how we create and distribute ads –– it’s even changing how we measure and interpret how our audience reacts to our content.

Indeed, this should inspire and challenge us to be more sympathetic to the anxieties of the public, who are also staring down life-changing technological advancements being delivered at breakneck speed.

As marketers who work on the bleeding edge of the tech industry, it falls to us to give serious consideration to how we use technology and automation, and how these forces are changing society. This year’s Super Bowl commercials may have different (or even contradictory) messages, but they’re all asking the same question: How can we use technology not to replace humans, but to make our lives better?