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By Dick Maggiore and Mark Vandegrift

How to Critique Super Bowl Commercials

How to Critique Super Bowl Commercials

Every year, friends and family ask me if I watch Super Bowl commercials differently because I’m in the ad business. The answer is, “Of course I do!” The follow-up question is always, “Then, how?” How do I critique Super Bowl commercials? Very easily, and you can do it too with these two easy positioning filters…

What’s the idea?

When you watch a commercial, whether it’s on the Super Bowl or not, ask the easy question, “What basic idea are they trying to convey to me?” We get distracted by the entertainment value that we lose sight of the idea that should be the nugget you take away. For example, whenever you watch a Geico commercial, they want you to remember “15 minutes will save you 15% or more.” Geico wants you to believe you will save money because they are a low-cost insurance provider that is easy and fast. Liberty Mutual conveys the same idea (low-cost insurance provider), but they do it by convincing you they quote “only what you need.” Liberty Mutual’s position of “customized insurance” also repositions their competition by suggesting all the other guys quote you stuff you DON’T need.

Both Geico and Liberty Mutual release entertaining ads, but in the end, they leave you with their single idea. Every time. Regardless of the ad content. Geico has used cave men (recently revisited, by the way), movie stars, sci-fi, odd life situations, and sometimes just the gecko, to entertain you. They always leave you with their differentiating idea: 15 minutes will save you 15% or more. Easy and fast to get low-price insurance. And sometimes, they have even made fun of that line suggesting it should be replaced with something else.

Look for the differentiating idea. It’s what we call a position.

Does it grab your attention?

Boring never wins. Did the commercial make everyone at your Super Bowl party quiet down and listen? That’s the first sign that the advertiser understands the emotional side of your brain. Because we are inundated with upwards of 12,500 messages every day, our minds block out most of them so our brains don’t explode. Even though many of those attending your party came to watch the commercials and not the game, you can tell the difference when a commercial piques the interest of everyone. There’s just another level of silent in the room when the ad hits an emotional nerve (i.e., comedy, tragedy, cleverness, etc.).

The problem, however, with most Super Bowl commercials is that it ends at entertainment. We like to call these types of ads “adver-tainment.” It’s simply advertising for entertainment’s sake. The ad agency that created the entertaining ad is looking for an award (which, by the way, they give themselves) and skipped the differentiating idea at the core of the message. Therefore, you don’t walk away with any idea, or if you do, the wrong idea.

Grabbing attention is good if it leads to building a position in your mind that you will file away until you decide to purchase a product in the category.

These two tips are as basic as one could provide: 1) What’s the idea? and 2) Does the ad grab your attention? There’s a lot more psychology to it than this, but frankly, this is enough for you to figure out, objectively, the quality of an ad.

To test this theory, here is a simple trick you can use on others attending your Super Bowl party to see how an ad stacks up – good ad or bad ad?

The Super Bowl Commercial Test™

That’s right, I trademarked this test. Well, not really. But it should be your go-to on how to critique a Super Bowl commercial. Here’s how it works:

  1. When you and a friend watch an ad together, and you see a response to it (i.e., laugh, cry, or comment), wait about five minutes after the commercial runs, then…
  2. Ask your friend what the brand was. If your friend can’t answer, then…
  3. Ask your friend what the product was.

Chances are 50-50 that your friend will forget both the brand and the product category. For example, this might be how the conversation goes:

[Five minutes after the ad runs…]
You: “Hey Jake, that puppy commercial where they jumped through hoops at a doggy park … do you remember which brand that was advertising?”
Jake: “Uhhhh … not really.”
You: “Do you know what product it was advertising, like maybe cars or beer or something?”
Jake: “Hmmmm. No.”

Why does this happen? Because we don’t connect cute puppies to brands. We connect ideas to brands and brands to categories. Insurance → Geico → Save time and money on insurance. Or, Insurance → Liberty Mutual → Save money on a customized insurance plan.

The goal of an ad should be to connect the idea to the brand name. When it does that, it’s a winning ad. When it does NOT do that, it’s a waste of $7 million, which is what a :30 spot costs this year for a 2024 Super Bowl commercial.

And that’s how you critique a Super Bowl commercial. Let the game begin!