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Why the Super Bowl crypto ads worked

Larry David in 18th Century costume for an FTX ad
FTX/Screenshot
Smart.
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One day after the NFL Super Bowl, which some are now calling the Crypto Bowl, two of the big game’s ads for cryptocurrency exchanges appear to be attracting the most chatter and praise. Both were exceptionally creative.

First, Coinbase aired a 60-second Super Bowl ad featuring a mysterious QR code that bounced around the edges of viewers’ screens just like a DVD logo from early 2000s, a visual that has since become a meme. To find out who was behind the ad, viewers needed to point their phones at the screen. After arriving at the Coinbase website, visitors were offered $15 to get set up on the exchange.

In the second popular ad, comedian Larry David, an unlikely spokesperson for anything crypto, appears in a series of sketches where he casts doubt on history-changing innovations throughout time. The wheel? “It’s a miss,” he says. A lightbulb? “Can I be honest with you?” he tells Thomas Edison. “It stinks.”  Trading crypto on the FTX exchange? “I don’t think so.”

Leading up to the game, FTX had urged its followers on social media to be prepared for the ad. If they retweeted a message from the exchange’s official account once it aired, they would automatically be entered in a bitcoin giveaway.

The metrics that showed the crypto ads “worked”

Objectively measuring the overall success of any advertisement is complicated, if not impossible. In these cases, however, the companies each collected at least one quantifiable metric—QR code-enabled visits or retweets.

Enough people were curious enough to solve the QR code mystery that the traffic crashed Coinbase’s server. Its failure to remain functional won the brand additional online attention.

The FTX sweepstakes message was retweeted nearly 180,000 times (perhaps that number would have been higher if the retweets did not automatically out people as lottery players eyeing a dubious prize). What’s more, the extended cut of the commercial already has more than one million views on YouTube.

In terms of the return on investment, there appears to be a clear winner between the two advertisers. Both companies could have spent up to a reported $14 million for their respective 60 seconds of airtime, but only FTX also had to shell out for 112 actors and 134 crew members to produce its commercial during a pandemic. According to the New York Times, the covid protocols alone meant spending an extra $100,000 per day for the shoot.

What made some of the Super Bowl crypto ads so successful?

Costs aside, both ads exemplified the hallmarks of successful advertising, as defined in a 2020 meta-analysis led by researchers at the Stockholm School of Economics. Their findings suggest that, contrary to popular understanding, being bracingly original is somewhat overrated.

Analyzing 93 data sets taken from 67 papers, the investigators found that consumers who rated ads as creative were actually looking for two traits: novelty and appropriateness, the latter of which might also be defined as meaningfulness or relevance. By contrast, advertising insiders and critics are more likely to give more weight to originality alone.

Indeed, neither crypto ad was particularly original. Coinbase’s spot cleverly linked two newer pieces of technology—the QR code and crypto—to an existing meme, one that is itself animated by the comfort of nostalgia, a theme at this year’s game. (Granted, it was a novel idea to air such a minimalist ad in an event known for extravagance.) Meanwhile, the FTX ad compared the relatively new invention of crypto to great moments in history, hardly a fresh conceit.

However, both ads satisfy the consumer’s search for appropriateness. That is, unlike the surreal Super Bowl ad by eToro, which was original but confusing, consumers understood what Coinbase and FTX were saying about their respective brands and products. Coinbase was essentially signaling, “No mystery here. Trading is easy.” By suggesting that owning crypto would one day be commonplace, FTX instilled a sense of FOMO. (Plus, by hiring a famously cranky spokesperson to turn down its product, it displayed a sophisticated understanding of consumers’ mixed feelings about crypto culture and its place in the world.)

Fortunately for both companies, the Swedish study also found that advertising is slightly more effective at promoting less familiar brands.

What’s more, the research suggests that ads are most successful not when they cut through noise and catch your attention; rather, the study argues that “creativity is more likely to work in situations where more focused ad processing occurs.” Like, when you’re watching the year’s biggest football game partially because of the ads.

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