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By Derek D. Rucker and Tim Calkins (both Kellogg professors of marketing)

For us, the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review is one of the most exciting experiential learning activities we take part in at Kellogg. Each year, a panel of approximately 65 MBA students watch the Super Bowl with us. However, rather than focus on the game itself, we focus on the ads. That’s right, we spend our time understanding whether the ads were strategically sound investments to help a brand sail to success or risky gambles that may have led the brand to take on water and potentially put their brand in peril.

Why we do it

The goal of the review has always been student-focused. Our aim is to help our students apply content taught in our courses — in particular, Advertising Strategy and the Marketing core — in one of the biggest expenditures most brand managers will ever make: A Super Bowl spot. As such, scrutinizing, evaluating and discussing these executions provides our students with an extremely rich learning opportunity. By applying frameworks and strategies from our curriculum, we work with our students to understand not only what brands succeeded and failed in their advertisements, but to understand why a particular ad is likely to be more or less effective versus ineffective. Each year, this leads to a final assessment of a brand’s performance by our students, which receives a significant amount of media interest and coverage.

What’s at stake

A lot. Purchasing a Super Bowl spot is one of the largest investments a brand can make. The media buy alone is purported to be around 5.4 million for thirty seconds. Add production costs, talent costs, and flanking it with a social media campaign and the number gets even bigger. However, there is more at stake than just the costs of the spot. The Super Bowl often garners an audience of 100 million people or more. That’s a lot of eyeballs on your brand. More than this, Super Bowl ads are one of the few forms of advertisements that consumers report actively looking forward to seeing and discussing. That’s right, Super Bowl advertisements aren’t just watched by faculty with a penchant for advertising; they are widely consumed and discussed by the population at large. The fact that consumers want to watch your advertisements is a huge draw for marketers. However, this also raises the stakes of the advertisements; a great ad can be amplified and discussed by many…but so too can a bad ad. Indeed, in most years, the day after the Super Bowl the news media want to talk about two things: 1) the game; and 2) the ads. Thus, with high costs and significant scrutiny on the advertisements, the Super Bowl is an event that can help propel a brand forward or stop them in their tracks.

What’s different in 2021

The Super Bowl of 2021 will not be like its predecessor. For one, given Covid-19 restrictions and precautions, the stadium will not be at capacity. However, for advertisers, they face an environment that has a lot of unique challenges.

First, this past year was marked by a pandemic, calls for social justice and a presidential election. All of these factors have created a particularly unique environment when it comes to advertising. In particular, one of the biggest challenges faced by advertisers will be to get the tone of their advertising right. With a lot of weighty issues going on right now, brands will have to be careful not to be too somber to alienate consumers. At the same time, being too playful might risk reactions around brands not being sensitive to the context. Perhaps more than any year, brands find themselves in the position of having to carefully navigate some dangerous waters, avoiding icebergs related to being too serious and too lighthearted. This can be a challenge.

Second, the Super Bowl is usually consumed in large settings where people can see and feed off of one another’s reactions. This is true not only with regard to the game, but with regard to the advertising, as well. Indeed, in your typical year, there is a lot of “Social Proof” — an ad is great because you immediately see people laugh aloud. However, given social distancing and care by consumers, there is likely to be a heavy reduction in large Super Bowl parties. As such, advertisers have to also consider tailoring their ads to this unique environment. An ad that might work when viewed by a crowd of consumers may lose its appeal when it is being watched by an individual or a couple.

Given these challenges, it is perhaps not surprising that it has taken a lot longer to sell Super Bowl spots this year. And, for the first time in recent memory, this is occurring even despite a reduction in the asking price. In fact, even past Super Bowl favorites, such as Pepsi and Avocados from Mexico, have not purchased spots in this year’s Super Bowl. Clearly, advertisers have approached this year with greater trepidation than before.

Despite everything, at Kellogg we will be looking forward to working with our students to once again assess the strategic value of the advertisements. Of course, our own experience will be different, as we, too, will be following Covid and social distancing protocols. However, we are confident that one thing will not change: the Super Bowl advertisements this year will offer an excellent opportunity to apply and hone the skills we teach here at Kellogg. In doing so, we are hopefully equipping our students for future successful advertisements in the Super Bowl.

Learn about Kellogg’s 2021 Super Bowl Ad Review >

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