Why Aren't All Commercials As Good As The Super Bowl Ones?

From a car-starting Darth Vader kid, to a football playing Betty White, to a horse befriending dog, Super Bowl ads have entertained, shocked, and even moved us. Even ads from decades ago still have us talking and laughing, such as the 1984 Apple ad, the 1992 Pepsi Cindy Crawford ad, and the 1993 MJ v. Larry Bird ad.

This has left many asking: Why aren't all commercials as good as the Super Bowl ones? If business can make good and even great ads, why don't they always do so?

To answer this question we need to consider the real purpose of an advertisement. When we do this, we find an answer and get an important business lesson.

The primarily purpose of an advertisement is to be effective, not good.

Most of the time, for ads to be effective the ads don't need to be "good" or "quality." Normal ads might even be more effective if they lack the good qualities and complexities we see and love in Super Bowl ads.

It must be remembered that the Super Bowl is a rare case. Here, the audience is actually paying full attention and wanting to enjoy and judge the ads. This allows the ads to be complex and nuanced. Further the discussion and judging culture around the Super Bowl ads necessitates quality to get a positive "buzz."

In general though, when watching Rachel Ray, Big Bang Theory, Friends, or most any other show, things are much different.

Normally, businesses have to fight to win the attention of highly distracted TV viewers, who are often channel surfing or multitasking. In these cases, even if viewers dislike the ads and find them annoying, the ad can still be effective if the ads increase awareness, gets stuck in viewers' memories, or slips in unconsciously.

Daily advertisements must deal with viewers who are often not even looking at the screen as they play on their computers, clean, or get ready for work. This means the ads cannot be like the "artsy" ads that grace Super Bowl timeouts. Instead the ads must be loud, aggressive, and full of brand references.

Also most ads get heavy rotation. This means the ads need to be effective over relentlessly viewing. Many Super Bowl ads rely on a twist, shock factor, or a heartfelt narrative. Excessive viewings of these types of ads would lose value quickly and could even retroactively degrade the value. Super Bowl ads are like an artsy song while everyday ads are like the second radio single from any Maroon 5 album--mundane but infinitely digestible.

When we contrast Super Bowl ads with normal ads we learn a powerful business lesson: Being effective does not always mean being quality. It's a lesson many of us find hard to swallow. But it's bitter pill we all need to take.

Quality has its place in TV advertising, but so does annoyingly effective mediocrity. Unfortunately, the latter is usually the norm. However, we can all be thankful that for one evening each January, the stars align such that what makes an advertisement effective is also what makes it enjoyable.


Troy Campbell is a marketing researcher at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business and Center for Advanced Hindsight.

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