Why Super Bowl commercials may be a waste of money

The Super Bowl isn't important only to football fans. For the advertising industry, it's also the most-watched event of the year. 

But while football fanatics may get their money's worth, some marketers shelling out upwards of $4 million for a 30-second commercial may be on the losing end of the game. 

Advertising research firm Communicus has sought to answer an decades-old question: Is Super Bowl advertising really effective? Not just at pulling viewers' heartstrings, mind you, but at actually spurring viewers to pick up a six-pack of Budweiser or to buy a new Toyota RAV4? The answer, for four out of 5 marketers, is a resounding "No." 

The study, covered in AdAge on Jan. 6 and originally published last year, found that only one out of five Super Bowl commercials spur consumers to buy a product or build purchase interest. The research firm will also study this year's advertisements to gauge which are the most effective. 

"Advertising should make people buy products, or at least build purchase interest. Judged against this standard, four out of five Super Bowl XLVII commercials failed to deliver," the company wrote. 

The company, which interviewed consumers before and after they viewed the commercials, found the most-liked ads are not always the most effective at selling goods. 

Take PepsiCo's (PEP) Doritos, which runs a popular contest that allows regular people to submit their own would-be Super Bowl ads. 

"Doritos, which for the 7th year has generated publicity and consumer involvement by holding an open competition to create its Super Bowl commercials, typically achieves strong rankings in USA Today and other polls that concentrate on attention and liking," Communicus notes. "However, the story is quite different when actual persuasive power is taken into consideration -- none of the four Doritos Super Bowl commercials over the last 2 years have moved the needle in terms of brand preference or purchase intentions."

One of last year's most successful spots at driving both awareness and purchase interest was Beck's Sapphire spot, which featured a singing goldfish. Even though it was panned by critics, the spot illustrated the power of  introducing a new product during the Super Bowl, the study notes. Other successful spots included Budweiser's "Brotherhood" ad and and Best Buy's "Ask Amy" commercial, according to the group.

The high cost of a Super Bowl commercial has long prompted a discussion over the game’s value to corporate America. For marketers with money to burn, the Super Bowl guarantees not only one of the biggest television audiences of the year, but viewers who are actually eager to watch the commercials. 

That's because the Super Bowl is to TV commercials what Broadway is to regional theatrical productions: The end-all and be-all. It's where marketers want to strut their stuff and dazzle viewers with high production values and funny or heart-warming stories. 

Still, with an ad's price tag now hitting $4 million, it's unlikely that marketers will see a return on that investment, Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, told Advertising Age in November.

"The reason advertisers are on the game is because it supercharges their brand. It's just very hard to tie the [sales] numbers specifically back to that media buy," he said. 

At least one advertiser has already said it's sitting out this year. E-Trade will skip the Super Bowl for the first time since 2007. 

Still, there's no shortage of advertisers eager to buy into the priciest TV real estate of the year (the most expensive TV show during the regular 2013-14 season is NBC's "Sunday Night Football," which fetches just short of $600,000 for a 30-second spot): The Super Bowl's ad time sold out last month.

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