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Marketing Class Tackles Super Bowl Commercials

No offense to Patriots, but Asst. Prof. Spencer Ross more interested in big game's ads

Asst. Prof. Spencer Ross tosses a football in his office Photo by Ed Brennen
Asst. Prof. Spencer Ross is having students in his Consumer Behavior class live tweet about the Super Bowl commercials using #MSBSB.

By Ed Brennen

Marketing students in Asst. Prof. Spencer Ross’ Consumer Behavior course have a little bit of homework while watching the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI: They need to tweet their thoughts about the game’s commercials using the hashtag #MSBSB.

Ross, whose research focuses on digital/interactive marketing communications and transformative consumer research issues, isn’t a big football fan himself (he’s more of a Montreal Canadiens hockey fanatic). But Ross is well aware of the advertising frenzy surrounding the NFL championship game, which draws more than 100 million U.S. viewers each year and fetches a reported $5 million for a 30-second spot (or about $167,000 per second).

Ross shared his thoughts on how the playing field is changing for Super Bowl advertisers, whether commercials will get political this year, and where Mountain Dew’s bizarre “Puppymonkeybaby” ad from 2016 ranks all-time.

Q: How are you connecting the Super Bowl to your classroom?

SPENCER ROSS: We’re talking about the consumer decision-making journey in class, and how products get from Point A to Point B in terms of consumers being aware that there’s something they need all the way to making the purchase. I want students to think about how the Super Bowl approaches consumer behaviors and how advertisements influence that behavior. They will be examining why some ads are more effective than others and why there are some ads for standard-bearers like cars, beers and soft drinks, and some random ads for things like TurboTax or GoDaddy. 
Q: How has the Super Bowl advertising landscape changed in recent years?

SR: The NFL is really trying to engage with consumers — not just at the arena level but also through social media and mobile platforms. That obviously parlays itself into engaging brand sponsors. You now see this real immersive consumer experience around the Super Bowl that’s beyond just the game and even beyond just the advertisements. Companies are recognizing the importance of their advertisements as part of this media frenzy. A few brands have started teasing their Super Bowl ads already; I think Snickers has one with a horse and an Adam Driver cutout. Companies are prereleasing their ads on YouTube, so you’ve got this buzz that’s building and starting the viral engagement. That’s been a big thing in branding right now — the idea of using storytelling to engage consumers beyond a 30- or 60-second spot, the idea of pulling a brand through this week into next week, beyond just what happens during the game on Sunday.

Q: What’s the reason for this shift?

SR: A lot of it has to do with social media. With new media like Snapchat, you’ve got these stories that have to be retold every 24 hours. Brands need to engage with their customers on Facebook and Twitter. They have to create these stories that can be threaded through so consumers are following their brand and constantly engaged — in a variety of different platforms, in a way they see fit. A lot of the shift toward this has been looking at customer demographics, looking at millennials and shorter attention spans, and using these narratives to extend the attention span of what’s going on with the brand over the course of the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl.

Q: Do you think advertisers will get political this year?

SR: I think everyone is kind of on edge about that. It’s interesting because everybody comes together around the Super Bowl regardless of where you are, who you are, and what your politics are, and the NFL has done a good job as positioning itself as “America’s Game.” Will the current political climate impact that? I think advertisers are going to try to be as neutral as they can and ultimately people will read it however they read it. Certainly, there will be some ads with subtle, value-based themes where certain consumer segments will paint their own interpretations onto the ads. But companies do their Super Bowl ad planning almost a year in advance, so it would be difficult for them to pivot quickly if they decide to get into something overly topical. Take, for example, Budweiser’s hotly discussed "Born the Hard Way” ad, which tells the story of an immigrant, Adolphus Busch, coming to the U.S. and meeting Eberhard Anheuser. In prior years, this ad would simply be seen as the company’s origin story and get a fairly positive response. But with immigration such a politically sensitive topic right now, the ad's contents have become more salient. But creative planning for the ad started almost a year ago. When your business is spending $6 to 7 million on a Super Bowl ad — $2 to 3 million to produce and $4 million on ad buy — the last thing you want to do is intentionally wade your brand into politically charged waters during the big game.

Q: Do you have a favorite Super Bowl commercial of all time?

SR: I don’t know if it’s of all time, but one that’s still sticking with me from last year is the Mountain Dew “Puppymonkeybaby” ad. It was so disorienting and jarring, and some people were creeped out by it, but it was this conversation piece that is still alluded to here and there. It was very nonsensical in a way that was also very non-offensive. It also had that song, which was almost earwormy. You were stuck with it even though you didn’t like it, and I think in that regard it was effective. For a product like Mountain Dew, it definitely appealed toward their core demographic.

Q: How about a least favorite commercial?

SR: I suppose the recent Jublia toenail fungus ad was effective because I remember it, but it was jarring in a bad way. You’re having this fun experience watching the game with friends, enjoying food, and then suddenly someone is talking about toenail fungus. It’s an interesting point for them to get into; a lot of direct-to-consumer drugs want to be seen. But it was a non sequitur.

Q: Is Super Bowl advertising a bubble that could ever burst?

SR: I don’t know if we are at peak Super Bowl advertising yet, but I definitely think we’re in a bubble around here geographically because of the success of the Patriots. But as far as general viewing numbers, I think most sports are finding their numbers down — even the NFL this season. I think the bigger issue is fragmentation of media channels. Everything is so spread out, and it does have an effect. I read a study that Gen Z is spending eight to nine hours on their phones a day. All these leagues want to get in that space and stay ahead of the curve, but what happens once you’re in there? How do you maintain that level of engagement? Figuring out how best to do that has been a priority for all of the leagues.

Fans watching the game Sunday night are welcome to follow along with the marketing students on Twitter, and share their own thoughts, using the hashtag #MSBSB.