Super Bowl Ads Try to Score More Points with Viewers



  • Typical Super Bowl ads have a four-part structure.
  • New technique shows how viewers react second-by-second.
  • Advertisers can identify and fix segments that offend some viewers.

Most people will go to Super Bowl parties this Sunday to watch football. Jen Burton will go to talk about advertising.

“Because so many ads debut on social media, chances are that I will see at least half of them prior to the Super Bowl,” says the former Ph.D. student from the McCombs School of Business, who’s now Assistant Professor of Marketing at High Point University in North Carolina. “I’ll go to a Super Bowl party, and I’ll know who’s advertising, and I’ll give you the behind-the-scenes scoop.”

But Burton is not just a fangirl of Super Bowl commercials. In recent research co-authored with McCombs professors Wayne Hoyer and Leigh McAlister, she used a new method to analyze how viewers respond to those ads. Their findings, gleaned from 11,759 subjects watching 46 different spots, offer techniques to make ads more effective — by telling better stories.

“It is all about stories,” says Hoyer, Chair of McCombs’ Marketing Department. “In the Middle Ages, the village storyteller was one of the most popular people in the village. Whether it’s in movies or books or interpersonal communications, you try to tell good stories. What our research does is to tell you how to structure that story.”

Watching the Watchers

The consumer reactions, collected by market research firm BDJ Solutions of Medford, Massachusetts, were recorded by computer as they watched ads online from Super Bowl 38 in 2004. Viewers used a mouse to move an onscreen slider left or right to indicate how appealing they found a video as they watched it. They started at a neutral position of 5, sliding toward 1 when they felt more negative and towards 10 when they felt more positive.

The slider concept is not new, Burton says. USA Today’s Ad Meter uses similar means to measure viewer reaction to Super Bowl ads. But USA Today averages all responses. That number doesn’t reveal whether some users are strongly pleased or disgruntled.

What’s new in her analysis is that it tracks the most positive 10 percent and most negative 10 percent, second by second. Explains co-author and McCombs Professor Leigh McAlister, “This method marks the times when there are big changes in people’s reactions and groups people together who are reacting in the same way. Here are the people who loved it, and here are those who were really turned off.”

Segments of a Story

The researchers found a common structure to the ads. Responses tended to move farther apart or closer together at four points on a storyline. A sample ad, for Lay’s potato chips, outlines the key segments:

  • Introduction: During the first three seconds, a son kisses his elderly parents goodbye, grabs the last potato chip from a bowl, and drops a bag of chips on his way out.
  • Premise: During the next seven seconds, flamenco music begins to play, and the elderly couple starts to race towards the bag. The man trips his wife with his cane.
  • Development: In the next 11 seconds, the husband pokes his wife in the back with his cane as he wins the race. But as he raises the bag in triumph, his wife holds up his dentures.
  • Conclusion: The final six seconds close the story with an ironic twist, as the son returns to grab the bag and repeat his goodbye kiss.

The researchers found a stark divide in consumer responses.

The average viewer rated the ad a 6.5 by its finale, but the most positive and negative viewers were as many as six points apart at critical points: when the wife is prodded with the cane and when the son reclaims his chips.

The analysis provided a demographic breakdown of who liked the spot and who didn’t. “We found that younger people and males found it funny, while older people and women didn’t,” says Burton. “If Lay’s were targeting older ladies, they would have a problem with this ad. But they were targeting young men, who seemed to like it.”

Make a So-So Ad Super

Advertisers could use the new technique in several ways, the researchers say, to tweak an ad before plonking down $5 million for 30 seconds during Super Bowl 50.

“They could run this test to determine which plot elements are going over well and which are not,” says Burton. “They could make changes in the ad before the Super Bowl to generate a better response. It could be the actor, the scenery, or the punch line of a joke.”

Over time, an advertiser could learn how to better tell a product’s story, says Hoyer. “You can test what ads work best and structure new ads around those principles. You can not only test what overall effect an ad has, but eliminate potential problems as well.”

In future research, Burton hopes to broaden her analysis. Variables like whether viewers have used the product before or their degree of brand loyalty could prove even more significant than age or gender, she says. In unpublished research that’s underway, she’s finding consumers react better to ads they’ve previewed on social media.

What makes all these applications possible, she says, is the ability to tie fleeting reactions to specific points on a timeline. It’s no surprise that Burton describes it in a football metaphor: “When you have this continuous data about how people respond to every second, you can go back to the tape like a coach would, preparing for the next big game, and see what’s driving consumer response.” 

"How Do Consumers Respond To Storylines in Television Advertisements?" was featured in the Journal of Advertising.
See video

Mentioned in this Article

Wayne Hoyer

Marketing Department Chair and Professor McCombs School of Business

Wayne D. Hoyer holds the James L. Bayless/William S. Farrish Fund Chair for Free Enterprise. Dr. Hoyer joined the faculty of The University of...

Leigh M. McAlister

Professor, Marketing

Leigh McAlister holds the Ed and Molly Smith Chair in Business Administration at McCombs. She received a B.A. from the University of Oklahoma...

About the Author

Steve Brooks

In a quarter-century as a journalist, Steve Brooks has won two Neal awards for excellence in trade reporting and a Press Club of New Orleans award...