Super Bowl commercials: out of sight is out of mind

Millions of people have voted for their favorite Super Bowl commercials, in what seems like almost as many polls. But actual audience resarch tells a story that goes beyond stated preferences and has a cautionary message for all advertisers, from the smallest home-based Richmond business to the Super Bowl’s biggest advertisers, Doritos and Chevrolet Division of Government Motors. That message, to mangle the lyrics from a golden oldie, is: To love, love, love them is not necessarily to know, know, know them.

Neilsen audience research and Alterian online research both confirm that there’s a marked disconnect between what consumers liked during the broadcast and what they remembered and acted on.

Neilsen’s study involved 14,932 surveys of Super Bowl viewers about 58 unique national commercials, excluding movie promos, that ran from the kickoff through halftime and the game’s end. Respondents were asked which ads they remebered, by brand, and which ads they liked “a lot.” The results were averaged and indexed, with 100 being the norm and anything above that being better than average. Alterian monitored and correlated online Tweets, Facebook posts, etc., for number of posts, number of followers and positive or negative references to the brand.

With one notable exception, both researchers found that consumers liked one set of commercials but remembered another.

Which ones did they like?

The best-liked commercial, Neisen found, was VW Passat’s little Darth Vader trying to use the Force on everything, with a likeability index of 186. The spot was so well liked, it even made its way into political cartoons. But it didn’t even make the top ten for brand recall. The Bridgestone tires commercial, where a beaver saves a driver, was second-most-liked (index 171) and didn’t make the top ten either.

Which ones did they remember?

The second-most-remembered spot, the Budweiser western saloon (index 166), didn’t make the top ten for likeability, nor did Pepsi’s fourth- and fifth-most-recalled commercials (153 and 150 on the recall index).

In terms of online buzz, Volkswagen (Neilsen’s most liked) was only 15th on Alterian’s Social Engagement Index (number of posts x number of followers), while Neilsen likeability number-two Bridgestone was 21st on Alterian’s SEI.

The notable exception

One brand, however, managed not to fall victim to this dichotomy, and that was Doritos. Their spot with the man licking the Doritos dust off everything was Neilsen’s fourth-most-liked and third-most-remembered commercial. Their spot where the dog knocked down a glass door to get to a Dorito chip was Neilsen’s most recalled, and the one where the product brings Gandpa’s ashes back from the dead was seventh. Doritos as a brand (the methodoology doesn’t tabulate individual commercials) was the runaway leader in Alterian’s SEI. The Steelers wish they’d done as well.

And in looking at the commercials, the reasons why are obvious. Like the other most-liked spots, they entertained. But unlike most of the others, they didn’t stop at that. They made the product the focus of the commercial, not an afterthought tacked on at the end. The story lines were all built around the premise that Doritos’ taste was so special, all kinds of living beings would go to outrageous extremes to enjoy it — dogs crashing through glass doors, people licking other people’s fingers, even dead people coming back to life.

The only thing the most-liked commercial tells you about the VW Passat, in contrast, is that it has remote-control starting.

A notable lesson

The lesson to advertisers is obvious: Yes, capturing consumers’ attention and using entertainment value to hold it are important things. They’re what keeps people around for 30 seconds and gets them to like your brand personality. (And who buys from people they can’t abide?)

But they’re not the only thing. What are you going to do with people’s attention once you have it? If your message isn’t built around your product, and if it doesn’t give them one simple, direct reason for buying it, you’ve wasted your money. And that’s true whether you’ve spent $3 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl air time or $91 for a one-column-inch ad in the Richmond Times Dispatch.