GAME DAY

Sex really doesn’t sell—debunking Super Bowl advertising myths

Steven Tyler, Amy Schumer, Christopher Walken, and Seth Rogen are among the stars that will be pitching products during the Super Bowl this year.

But stuffing big names into an ad isn’t a surefire way to score points on game day. In fact, there are a few go-to marketing tactics that don’t really work for the big game, ad-tracking firm Ace Metrix found when analyzing the last six years worth of Super Bowl ads. The firm scores ads on a scale of one to 950 based on how persuasive, likable, informative, attention-grabbing, unique, relevant, watchable, and perception-changing viewers found the ads, as well as whether they made them want to learn more about the brands or buy the products.

On average, ads with celebrities, which made up one third of all Super Bowl ads in the last six years, scored 3% lower than ads without any big names. That’s because star-studded spots tend to be polarizing, Jason Zazzi, Ace’s vice president of marketing, told Quartz. “Even Oprah has her haters,” he said. “You’re going to turn off a portion of your audience at the beginning of the ad.”

That being said, ads with celebrities can also make a splash. Last year’s star-studded Snickers ad featuring actors Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi as Marsha and Jan Brady, respectively, from The Brady Bunch was one of the most popular ads of the last five years, Ace Metrix found. Radio Shack won the Super Bowl in 2014 when it took viewers back to the ‘80s with icons from the decade including wrestler Hulk Hogan, Alf, and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider. (Not that it helped the company’s performance.)

Those ads worked because they baked the celebrities into the stories to make them more compelling, Zazzi said, rather than just relying on a star’s appeal.

The Ace Metrix analysis also debunked the age-old myth that sex sells. Generally speaking, it may be true, but not on advertising’s biggest stage where the stakes are massive—a 30-second spot costs $5 million (paywall)—and the creative bar is extremely high.

Sexy Super Bowl ads, like last year’s Carl’s Jr. spot, performed 9% lower overall than ads without sexy themes. They may work for certain audiences, but they don’t have a broad enough appeal.

“It’s not about playing it safe,” said Zazzi. “But, at the same time, 100 million people are watching. Having the broad reach and appeal makes sense.”

H&M’s 2014 David Beckham Super Bowl ad, which played up both the athlete’s sex appeal and stardom, gave a middle of the road performance, scoring 450 points with viewers on the Ace Metrix scale.

Contrary to popular belief, Super Bowl ads also don’t have to be funny to do well. Eight of the top 10 most-liked Super Bowl ads from the last five years, including Budweiser’s tale of a Clydesdale and his canine pal, were more emotional and inspirational than humorous.

In general, Super Bowl ads have become a lot more emotional in the last few years. In 2010, just 2% of Super Bowl ads had emotional or inspirational tones, compared to 22% last year, Ace Metrix said. The number of funny Super Bowl spots also fell to 40% last year from 71% in 2010.

This year, some advertising experts expect brands to push back on that trend and lean toward light and humorous ads, following last year’s barrage of serious spots that earned Super Bowl 49 the title of “Somber Bowl.” But much of the creative is still under wraps, and it remains to be seen what approach marketers will take.

Despite the hefty price-tag for a Super Bowl ad, Ace Metrix found that the cost can pay off. On average, Super Bowl ads scored 3% higher with viewers than every-day ads. Last year, commercials during the game performed 5% better than average ads during the year.

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