This year, advertisers have committed approximately $5 million per 30-seconds of Super Bowl airtime. And the total cost for most brands could be much higher once the costs for production, digital, social media, and PR efforts are factored in. With some advertisers running 60 or 90-second spots, it's not unheard of for brands to surpass $10 million in spending.
There's no doubt that these ads will be highly successful. Sales, profits, and brand perceptions will improve significantly, propelled by the Super Bowl's enormous reach and power to command consumer attention. The best ads will be talked--and written--about for years, like Apple's "1984," McDonald's "Jordan vs. Bird," and Volkswagen's "Kid Vader."
On the other hand, some ads will be disappointments. The $5 or $10 million investments will likely deliver little in return. Not all Super Bowl ads can change a consumer's perception of the brand. Not all sales increase. And though viewed by millions, not all ads are translated into a positive business impact.
Here are some Super Bowl ads that failed:
The mobile hardware company used a Super Bowl ad to announced its new smartphone, the Z10, with hopes that it would spark sales and a rebound. The message of the ad was to tell viewers what the Z10 couldn't do, versus what it could do. Unfortunately, the ad was weak on a fundamental aspect of positioning. It didn't give people a compelling reason to buy the product. Thus, despite a big buy, the ad had little apparent impact on Blackberry's business.
2. Radio Shack
The chain of wireless and electronic stores was counting on a big boost from the Super Bowl in 2014, when it ran an ad featuring characters from the '80s destroying a store. The theme was to let viewers know that the company was well aware of its image problems, like being "outdated." But customers still weren't convinced there was a big enough reason to continue shopping at Radio Shack. In 2015, the company filed for bankruptcy and closed hundreds of stores.
Some brands, like Just-for-Feet, have it worse--by actually receiving negative feedback. In 1999, the sportswear brand ran a Super Bowl ad that showed a runner from Kenya being hunted down like an animal, drugged, and ultimately forced to wear a pair of shoes. While it definitely stood out from the other ads that year, the distinction largely came from concerns of racist overtones and ethnic insensitivity.
Unfortunately, Just-for-Feet wasn't the only brand that had to apologize to viewers. In 2008, Salesgenie.com featured a Super Bowl commercial featuring two talking panda bears speaking with what was perceived to be Chinese accents. The company, which helps small businesses find B2B and consumer leads, received complaints from viewers because of the characters' ethnic discrimination.
The e-commerce marketplace for discounted goods experienced a similar disaster in 2011. A number of consumers perceived its Super Bowl ad as making light of the human right violations in Tibet. While the ad was certainly distinct and garnered attention, Groupon was forced to engage in PR efforts to apologize for the spot.
Not all disasters are a result of ethnic or racial insensitivity. In 2015, Nationwide attracted considerable attention with an ad that focused on a small boy who never grew up--because of his death caused by an accident. The commercial set such a dark tone and circumstance--and without a clear resolution--that it left a bad taste in viewers' mouths.
With so much money at stake, why do so many Super Bowl commercials end up failing? This is partly due a company's failure to strategically build its brand in a way that doesn't offend or alienate consumers. It's not enough to simply be part of the Super Bowl, a winning strategy must be at hand. And with such a massive audience, it's important to be all the more sensitive with creative content. As simple as these observations sound, the Super Bowl has a long way to go before it sees its last ineffective or disastrous ad.
Professor Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He teaches several marketing classes, including marketing strategy, and bio-medical marketing. Professor Derek D. Rucker is the Sandy and Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at Kellogg School of Management, where he teaches advertising strategy. They co-lead the Kellogg School Super Bowl Ad Review, which is now in its 13th year.