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When Super Bowl ads go bad


The Super Bowl isn't just the biggest day of the year for football fans -- it's also the most highly anticipated day for advertisers.

The "Ad Bowl" has become the single costliest day for advertisers, with a 30-second spot fetching $4.5 million in air time alone. Add in production, digital media and a month-long campaign to promote that single ad, and the cost can easily ratchet up to double that amount. But for companies the big game offers an even bigger opportunity: To capture the imagination -- and perhaps the business -- of the roughly 100 million people tuning in not only to watch the game, but also to watch the commercials.

Indeed, viewers often are more interested in the ads than the game, a survey from Venables Bell & Partners found last year. That makes the Super Bowl one of the rare venues where consumers are actually excited to watch the ads. Because viewers are primed to listen and enjoy the ads, that raises the stakes for advertisers. One bad ad not only represents a financial loss, but could taint the brand's name for millions of potential customers.

"It's one of the rare places where the advertising becomes the content," Carl Marci, co-founder and chief science officer of Innerscope Research, told CBS MoneyWatch. Innerscope taps technologies such as biometrics and "neurometrics," which involves measuring electrical activity in the brain, to gauge consumers' responses to media. "You have to take people on a journey, and that starts with a coherent story with aspirational characters."

Advertisers sometimes stray from these core principals because they are trying to break from the pack. Relying on some basics, such as humor, cute babies and animals, are often a sure bet, Marci noted. But sometimes even those themes goes wrong, as witnessed by GoDaddy's pre-Super Bowl misfire this year, when its ad featuring a golden retriever puppy caused a firestorm. Animal lovers criticized the spot as promoting puppy mills, given that it showed a pup struggling to find its way home, only to be sold by his owner.

Still, even creating a negative emotion in viewers can work as advertising, noted Prashant Malaviya, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University.

"Ads that provoke and make people react negatively actually have achieved a purpose in that they made people think about the brand," he said, pointing to Coca-Cola's commercial in last year's game called "It's Beautiful," which showed people singing "America the Beautiful" in eight languages.

That spot sparked a backlash, with some objecting and writing "English, please" on Twitter, while others praised the ad's diversity. "Sometimes brands choose to be provocative because it's the only way to get consumer attention," Malaviya added. "Some ads aren't good in the sense that they are mundane and boring."

Whatever happens with this year's game, one thing is sure to be true: There will be a crop of ads that are clear winners, and a handful of losers.

Check out these 7 past Super Bowl ads that misfired, and, in one case, even prompted a lawsuit.

​Just for Feet, “Kenya Mission,” 1999

This 1999 Super Bowl ad not only backfired, but also led to a lawsuit against the advertising firm.

In the late 1990s, Just for Feet was aiming to grow into an athletic-shoe superstore, and opted for a Super Bowl ad to get its message across to consumers. It didn't work. The commercial showed a Humvee filled with four white men who tracked down a barefoot Kenyan runner. They then knock him out and force running shoes on his feet. When he wakes, he screams and tries to get the shoes off.

Decried as racist and culturally imperialistic, the ad sparked a $10 million lawsuit by Just for Feet against its advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, alleging professional malpractice. According to Salon, the running shoe company said in a complaint that the ad agency assured the spot would be "well received by the public." Instead, the commercial caused it to become known as a racially insensitive company, the complaint alleged.

Just for Feet later dropped the lawsuit. It filed for bankruptcy protection toward the end of 1999, and the last Just for Feet store closed in 2004.

​Holiday Inn, “Bob Johnson,” 1997

Another example of a message gone awry was aired in 1997, when Holiday Inn wanted to tell Super Bowl viewers about how its $1 billion renovation would improve the hotel chain's rooms and appearance.

But the ad showed the transformation by featuring a woman appearing at her high-school class reunion, with a narrator informing viewers how much she had spent on surgery for her chest, lips and nose. A classmate ogles her, and then shudders when he realizes the woman is really "Bob Johnson."

"You want to be excited about this transformation, and want it to be universally positive and not mixed," noted Innerscope's Marci. Instead, the male character's face "was crinkled up and confused."

Holiday Inn missed out on conveying the key attributes of its brand: great service, comfortable rooms and convenience, Marci added.

The ad didn't last long. Instead of running it on TV as part of a post-Super Bowl campaign, the hotel chain pulled the spot after complaints.

​Groupon, “Save the Money,” 2011

Nothing can damage a brand like cultural and political insensitivity, so it's no surprise that Groupon's 2011 ad was a Super Bowl flop.

The online deals company was aiming to convince the 111 million viewers who tuned in that year to try its discount service. It hired actor Timothy Hutton to deliver a voice-over about Tibet, describing it as "culture is in jeopardy." (Hutton was referring to China's control of the mountainous region, and efforts by some Tibetans and supporters to gain independence.)

But then the ad abruptly and jarringly changed in tone, switching from a documentary-style format to footage of Hutton eating in a Tibetan restaurant. Despite their troubles, Hutton says, "they still whip up an amazing fish curry."

After a backlash from viewers about the ad, Groupon pulled it. Unfortunately for the coupon company, there's no discount on failed Super Bowl commercials.

Snickers, “Kiss,” 2007

Even the most venerable marketers occasionally make missteps in an effort to grab viewers' attention. Take Mars Inc.'s 2007 ad for its Snickers candy bar.

The spot was supposed to be a lighthearted take on the popular candy bar. Two mechanics bite down on opposite ends of a Snickers bar, and end up kissing as they munch toward the center. Shocked, they try to prove their heterosexuality by ripping out their chest hair. An alternate ending, which Snickers posted on its website, showed the men fighting each other.

Gay rights organization GLAAD condemned the spot as homophobic, while the Human Rights Campaign urged Mars to pull the spot because it could be seen as condoning violence against gay people. Mars pulled the ad.

​GoDaddy, “Perfect Match,” 2013

GoDaddy has made a name for itself for its envelope-pushing Super Bowl commercials, but not all of its ads have proved popular.

Take "Perfect Match," which aired in the 2013 game and featured supermodel Bar Refaeli kissing a nerdy guy for about 10 seconds, while accompanied by skin-crawling sloppy wet-kissing sound effects. The message? That GoDaddy combines a sexy side and the nerdy side in a perfect union.

GoDaddy declared the ad a "Super Bowl Victory!!!" (exclamation points are the company's), but viewers were less charmed. It was the second lowest-rated Super Bowl ad that year, according to analytics company Ace Metrix.

​HomeAway, “Test Baby,” 2011

Vacation rental site HomeAway was likely aiming to be irreverent and funny in this 2011 ad, but ended up offending and shocking viewers instead.

The ad introduced a British man leading the "Ministry of Detourism." He wants to rescue tourists from hotels, which he says "hate your guts." At one point, the camera zooms into a closeup of a baby's face hitting a window with the words "test baby."

Aside from the ad generally confusing viewers, critics like the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, which advocates for the prevention of brain injuries, took issue with the spot.

The company removed that part of the ad from its website and issued an apology, with its CEO saying it had "made a mistake in judgment."

​Salesgenie, “Pandas,” 2008 was trying to drum up business for its service when it aired this ad during the 2008 Super Bowl. Unfortunately, what it drummed up instead were allegations of cultural insensitivity.

The cartoon ad features a furniture shop run by two pandas, who speak in what are supposed to be Chinese accents. The Asian-Pacific Americans advocacy group OCA called the spot "really racist."

InfoUSA, the parent of Salesgenie, apologized and agreed to yank the ad.

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