Touchdowns and Fumbles

Super Bowl Ads

Touchdowns and Fumbles

Advertisers spent more than $400 million to reach viewers during the Super Bowl. A UT doctoral student tracked their success — and failure.

by jesse fox mayshark • february 4, 2020


Super Bowl ads for (clockwise from top left) Doritos, Hyundai, Rocket Mortgage, Reese's and Jeep.

Alex Carter is a football fan, and he was happy to watch Sunday’s Super Bowl championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. As a Dallas Cowboys fan, his main concern was that the 49ers not win and pass the Cowboys in total Super Bowl victories. (Each team has five.)

Analyzing emojis and tweets to gauge the traction of commercials.

But he’s also a Ph.D. student in advertising at the University of Tennessee. So for him, the real action was what happened during commercial breaks.

“A lot of my overarching focus is on what is advertising’s role moving forward in new media and new technology,” he said. 

Using the online measurement tool Social Studio, Carter set up camp in UT Knoxville’s Social Media Command Center and tracked real-time responses to each of the multi-million dollar advertising spots throughout the game.

Based on his initial findings, some advertisers got a lot more bang for their bucks than others. And even among the spots that generated the most attention, there are differences in how well positioned they may be to capitalize on it.

Not Just an Ad

Super Bowl ads used to be a straightforward proposition: Advertisers paid a lot of money to produce novel, funny, heartwarming or otherwise notable commercials, and hoped that the game’s large audience noticed and reacted positively.

That’s how Carter remembers it from his childhood. “Some of my earliest memories of advertising are the ‘Whassup’ Budweiser commercials,” he said. 

The Super Bowl itself is still a huge draw for audiences and advertisers alike. Although viewership is down slightly from its peak, it remains the most-watched television program in the United States each year. This year’s game drew an estimated 99.9 million viewers, the first year-over-year increase since 2015.

But the complex modern media landscape has changed the way companies approach the big game.

With Super Bowl ads an attraction in and of themselves, advertisers have started to try to build anticipation with social media campaigns and sneak previews both online and on TV. This year, for example, included a spot featuring Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that was teased as if he were possibly going to announce his retirement. (It turned out to be an ad for the streaming service Hulu.)

Almost every commercial comes with its own hashtag, which allows companies to track engagement on Twitter and elsewhere.

“The amount of money spent on it, that’s what really drew me into this,” Carter said. “Each ad was about $5.6 million for 30 seconds. Some were doing 60-second ads. Tide had four, a 30-second and three 15-second ads. That’s a lot of money.”

He estimated that the same investment could purchase 1.8 billion impressions on Twitter, or 800 million views on an outdoor billboard in a top 25 market. All told, advertisers spent more than $400 million during the game. Carter wanted to see who made the best use of their time.

‘Smaht Pahk,’ Groundhog and #babynut

Carter tracked social media mentions of brands and associated keywords over the course of the game. He also looked at “sentiment,” a measure that interprets words and emojis to estimate whether a mention is positive or negative.

Alex Carter

Alex Carter, a Ph.D. student in advertising, shows some of his research at UT's Social Media Command Center.

The biggest winner on engagement was Planters peanuts, which had spent the two weeks before the game building a campaign around the death of its monocled Mr. Peanut mascot.

In the Super Bowl ad, a funeral attended by mourners including two other long-running mascots — Mr. Clean and Kool-Aid Man — is interrupted by the sprouting of a bush that produces a new baby Peanut. Planters immediately started promoting the hashtag #babynut, most likely hoping to play on the popularity of the Star Wars “Baby Yoda” character.

Carter said the ad generated 188,000 tweets and posts Sunday night, showing high audience interaction. The downside is that the measure of sentiment was mixed, with some people making obscene jokes about the hashtag.

Still, the sheer volume of discussion — a 6,400 percent increase over Planters’ normal social media mentions — is probably a good sign for the company.

“I think long term they’re going to have the best run, because they can milk baby Mr. Peanut for months,” Carter said.

Also clear winners were Jeep’s Groundhog Day commercial with Bill Murray and Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” ad showing off a new automated parking system in a spot full of Boston accents. Jeep registered 122,000 posts during the evening.

“Is this commercial going to sell enough Jeeps to make them $6 million in profit?” Carter asked. “I don’t think that was their plan. I think there’s a prestige factor to the Super Bowl that a lot of companies go for.”

The Hyundai ad, which featured a quartet of famous Boston faces, was a social media hit but actually the second-highest scoring Hyundai ad of the past two weeks. A spot during the Grammy awards featuring the internationally successful Korean pop band BTS — with whom the Korean car maker has a long-running relationship — generated more buzz than the Super Bowl commercial.

“They actually had twice as many posts on Twitter on Tuesday as they did on Super Bowl Sunday,” Carter said.

Still, he said, the “Smaht Pahk” spot seemed likely to enter the popular lexicon. The question, as is often the case with commercials remembered for something other than the product being sold, is whether the ad will promote the brand. “Do people associate Hyundai with that?” Carter asked.

Quibi Quibbles

That potential problem seems likely to afflict an ad featuring Jason Momoa relaxing at home by removing all of his muscles and his hair, turning his famously buff body into a stick-figure punchline.

Carter said the ad generated discussion, but little of it mentioned the sponsor. (It was Rocket Mortgage, if you’ve already forgotten.)

Even more problematic was a bank heist-themed spot for Quibi, a streaming service that will offer 10-minute episodes of original programming meant to be watched on a phone. The name is unfamiliar and the site won’t have any content until April, leaving its 30-second ad somewhat marooned.

“They really got no traction all night,” Carter said. “They had fewer than 3,000 posts over the past day. This is the launch of an entire campaign. They could have bought 1 billion impressions on Twitter for less than the money they spent on that ad.”

Another underperformer was Squarespace’s Winona ad, featuring a snowbound Winona Ryder touting the ease of designing a website on the company’s platform. It generated only about 1,000 posts on Twitter, raising the question of whether it makes sense for a business-to-business company to spend mass advertising dollars during the Super Bowl.

Carter has summarized some of his findings in a blog post, and he said he plans to write a follow-up later in the week focused on the performance of the night’s different car ads.