Jon Evans of System1: how to win the Super Bowl every day

There’s a big opportunity most brands miss in the Big Game. Seize it and you’ll score big throughout 2024.

As the biggest, most expensive audience left in advertising, the Super Bowl gives brands both a showcase and a classroom. What works in the $7 million+ spotlight can propel your advertising throughout the year.

115 million live viewers can catapult or curtail a brand. The opportunity is magnified by the fact that you’re playing against average competition. System1 tested all 308 ads from the past four Super Bowls with more than 46,000 American consumers and found overall Big Game ads performed like average ads.

Based on second-by-second emotional responses, we measured the factors that determine long-term brand impact and assigned a score of 1.0 to 5.9 stars. Super Bowl ads averaged 2.8-Stars, a little better than the average American TV commercial (2.3-Stars). What’s more, one in six Super Bowl viewers come away not knowing who the ad was for. That 17% miss is higher than the average ad, which leaves 15% wondering.

The good news is there’s a formula you can follow to rise well above the pack. The five Super Bowl ads that have hit the rare 5-Star level – Disney in 2023, Huggies and McDonald’s in 2021, and Doritos and Jeep in 2020 (below) – mastered several fundamentals you can follow.

Tell an upbeat story. Emotion determines long-term effectiveness, and stories unlock emotion. Two strategies for attention-gripping stories work best in Super Bowl advertising – surprising twists and comebacks. Kia’s “Robo Dog” (2020) scored 4.8-Stars by turning a sad opening into an intensely positive ending.

Brand early and often. Put your brand in the center of it. Viewers’ emotional intensity increases when they know who an ad is for. Lay’s 2022 ad “Stay Golden” features Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd fondly sharing memories that they have shared over Lay’s. Viewers are forced to comprehend the brand to understand the flashbacks.

Trigger nostalgia. Nostalgia reminds viewers of things they thought they’d forgotten, providing a kick of dopamine. Jeep’s 2020 ad “Groundhog Day” dug up fond memories in a modern twist with the brand at the center. So did Disney’s 2023 ad “Disney 100 Special Look,” a retrospective of its grand entertainment history.

Make celebrities brand relevant. Build the ad around what celebrities do best rather than plunking them into roles and situations that throw the audience. T-Mobile scored 4.7-Stars last year by pairing John Travolta with co-stars to sing a “Grease” hit. By contrast, on the whole celebrity ads score average response (2.8-Stars) because they’re depending on the celebrity’s image alone.

That’s especially important given that more ads are using more celebrities. Ask your creative team if they could swap stars with no difficulty. If the answer is yes, the ad is unlikely to elicit an intense, positive response from audiences; it’s not making distinctive enough use of a famous face.

Use recurring characters and situations. Orlando Wood coined the term fluent device for recurring characters and scenarios that help people connect to a brand. That’s why the M&M’s characters have outperformed the flock of celebrity ads in the past few years. And it’s why Boston Beer’s “Your Cousin From Boston” and Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” consistently score with audiences.

For this reason, fluent devices beat celebrities in Super Bowl ads by 11 points, 3.8-Stars to 2.7-Stars. What’s more, 89% of viewers remember the brand in a fluent device ad. A case in point is M&M’s last year. The brand’s ad featuring comedian Maya Rudolph, rumored to be replacing the “spokescandies,” scored 1.0-Star. Later in the game, the brand brought the dancing candies back, and scored 4.8-Stars.

Ironically, brands tend to come up short when they take abnormal creative leaps to meet the occasion of the Big Game. What wins on Super Sunday are treatments that make people comfortable and happy every day. Taking some tips from top scorers can forge powerful connections with audiences throughout the year.

Jon Evans is chief customer officer of System1 and host of the ‘Uncensored CMO Podcast.’

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