How three classic Super Bowl ads measured up in the eyes of a neuroscientist

5 February 2018
Reading Time
4 minute read

Heather Andrew, UK CEO of neuroscience research company Neuro-Insight, analyses three of the most memorable Super Bowl ads, picking out the familiar tropes that can be spotted in this year’s campaigns and the effects they have on our memories.

When the final whistle blew on Super Bowl LII, advertisers had spent an estimated $5.4 billion in the 52 years the event has been running. However, with this year’s 30-second slots going for over $5 million apiece and increasing scrutiny directed at advertising budgets, how can brands be sure their adverts are delivering?

Many of the advertising techniques used in this year’s adverts are stalwart features of Super Bowl commercial breaks; from the use of celebrities, to humour and intrigue, this year’s cohort turned to familiar tactics to engage viewers and generate buzz. However, while social media chatter is a good indicator of reach, assessing the long-term effectiveness of an ad can be much harder. We looked at some of the most talked-about Super Bowl ads of previous years from the brain’s perspective, identifying the creative techniques which helped induct them into the Super Bowl advertising Hall of Fame.

Pepsi’s 1992 Cindy Crawford spot

This iconic 1992 advert hooks viewers in immediately with the use of narrative intrigue; seeing the sleek sports car pull up to the petrol station, followed by the back and forth visuals of the two young boys and the glamourous Cindy Crawford helps keep the brain interested, as the viewer waits expectantly for the big reveal.

While Cindy is ostensibly one of the advert’s biggest draws, studies we’ve conducted around the use of celebrities have revealed that simply having a big name feature in an advert doesn’t necessarily drive effectiveness on its own. Nonetheless, Cindy contributes to the intrigue and humour in the ad, which helps to drive a positive “approach” response from viewers.

One of the biggest drivers of advertising effectiveness is “memory-encoding”, which is when an advert is successfully stored away into our long-term memory. While a strong storyline, using humour and intrigue as Pepsi does, is a good way to keep viewers watching, there can be a risk that the brain remembers the narrative rather than the brand. Ultimately, our brains are more interested in stories and puzzles than in brands per se; hence the fairly familiar situation where we can remember an ad really well, but have no idea what brand was behind it.

Pepsi manages to avoid this pitfall by ensuring the product is central to the narrative, with the new-look can itself functioning as the big reveal and therefore highly likely to be encouraging recall of the brand itself.

Volkswagen’s The Force

When Volkswagen revealed this advert days before the 2011 Super Bowl game, not only did they break the tradition of keeping adverts under lock and key, but also launched what became one of the most-watched Super Bowl ads of all time.

Like Pepsi, one of the creative techniques that makes this advert so successful is the use of narrative intrigue from the beginning, driven by the opening visuals of the young boy walking away in a Darth Vader costume, accompanied by the dramatic melody of the Stars Wars theme tune.

Volkswagen cleverly employs the use of this dramatic music throughout to keep the viewers engaged as the narrative unfolds. Notably, the crescendos and pauses in the Star Wars theme tune are matched to the action in the advert, reaching a climax with the entry of the Passat, before pausing dramatically as the little boy uses The Force to start up the car’s engine. Previous studies have revealed that synchronising visuals with a soundtrack, and using dramatic breaks and pauses are both key drivers of memory encoding, and they are successfully used here to focus the viewers’ recall on key product moments.

The humorous end to the advert, as the little boy is left in disbelief of his powers, is a clear resolution to the narrative the viewer has been watching unfold – as such, the brand that is part of this resolution is likely to be successfully encoded into memory.

Budweiser’s The Lost Dog

Budweiser’s heart-wrenching advert, The Lost Dog, was an instant viral hit when it aired during the Super Bowl in 2015. Big emotional narratives are usually successful at drawing in audiences, and a study we conducted around the advert revealed strong approach from viewers throughout.

However, while this emotive story line was successful at drawing audiences in, when we researched this ad we saw that the branding moment at the end was not encoded effectively into long-term memory. Despite general consensus that the advert had “won” the Super Bowl that year, and a huge amount of social media chatter generated by the ad, all the talk was about the dog rather than the brand. Indeed, traffic to Budweiser’s website actually fell following the game – confirming the findings that the key brand information in the advert had been largely lost on viewers.

As identified above, the best way for advertisers to avoid this happening is to ensure their brand is integrated throughout, and central to the advert’s storyline, instead of relying on an end logo or tagline to do the trick. While we wait for the “winner” of this year’s advertising Super Bowl to be crowned, advertisers can take heart in the fact that the most successful creative plays have changed little over the past few decades – even if the same can’t be said of the price tag.

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Heather Andrew

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