2013 Super Bowl Commercials: The Plot Thickens



  • In 2012, TV ads that debuted before the Super Bowl racked up about 600 percent more views on YouTube than those that ran for the first time during the game
  • Compared to other types of commercials, ads structured like jokes are more engaging and leave a better impression on viewers


If it seems like Super Bowl commercial buzz is starting up a little early this year, that’s because it is. Coca-Cola unveiled its “Coke Chase” campaign Jan. 22, almost two weeks before kickoff, and spots by Volkswagen, Audi, Hyundai, and Taco Bell are also drawing a substantial audience on YouTube. Those five ads alone have tallied more than 8.2 million views in a matter of days.

While some viewers may be disappointed that the pre-game blitz takes away from the fun of seeing the commercials on the big night, companies have a sound reason for getting an early start. In 2012, ads that ran in advance of the game racked up an average of 9 million views on YouTube — about 600 percent more than those that debuted on Super Bowl Sunday, according to Mashable.

But the overall success of an ad depends on more than just the size of its audience. Research by McCombs Associate Professor Raj Raghunathan suggests that the plot structure of a commercial goes a long way in determining how well viewers will respond to it. In a conversation with Texas Enterprise last year, Raghunathan said that to win over the audience, a spot should be set up like a joke, with a “series of repetitions, followed by a ‘break’ that introduces an element of surprise.”

“It turns out that the rep-break plot structure is generally thought to be more engaging, more involving, and the brand is better liked than similar kinds of ad executions that do not use the rep-break plot structure. … Just portraying it in this kind of a way makes us pay attention to the ad, and then the cleverness of the ad is somehow attributed to the brand. We think ‘Yes, this is a nice brand. I like this brand.’”

While that may seem fairly straightforward, Raghunathan estimates that a very small portion of TV ads — about 5 percent — actually adhere to that structure.

“Why isn’t it more prevalent? I think the answer partly lies in the fact that it’s difficult to come up with nice rep-break plot structures. It involves a lot of creativity and resources. … Our message goes out to a lot of the ad execs and TV execs and we strongly encourage them to think of taking advantage of [the rep-break plot structure].

So how does this year’s crop of ads measure up? Here’s a look at some of the early contenders.

Coca-Cola: “Coke Chase” — Three teams of thirsty competitors face off in pursuit of a gigantic stash of soda, with an outcome to be determined by online voters. By virtue of being a multi-part sequence, the campaign inherently has the element of repetition. But will there be a clever twist at the end? Only time will tell. Performance thus far: Nearly 1 million views in the spot’s first week

Hyundai: “Stuck” — Hyundai puts viewers in a familiar situation: the feeling of impending doom that comes with getting stuck behind all sorts of unsavory highway characters. The spot’s central gag hinges on repetition, as viewers can only guess about what kind of trouble lies ahead. Performance thus far: More than 160,000 views in three days

Volkswagen: “Get In. Get Happy.”— Turns out a carefree Rastafarian outlook on life is the perfect cure for a case of the Mondays. Again, a series of goofy vignettes pays off when the central schlub manages to win over his fellow office drones. Performance thus far: More than 3.5 million views in four days

Taco Bell: “Viva Young” — This ad doesn’t adhere to a strict rep-break structure, but it does involve old people going clubbing and slamming tacos in a fast-food parking lot. Enough said. Performance thus far: More than 220,000 views in three days


Faculty in this Article

Raj Raghunathan

Professor, Marketing

Raj Raghunathan earned his Ph.D. from the Stern School of Business at New York University. His work juxtaposes theories from psychology,...

About The Author

Rob Heidrick

Writer, McCombs School of Business

Born and raised in Austin, writer Rob Heidrick has spent several years as a contributor and editor at local magazines and community newspapers. He...

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