Most Super Bowl Spots Didn’t Score a Touchdown This Year

The 52nd Super Bowl sizzled instead of fizzled, with a record amount of offensive yardage and drama down to literally the last play. Some years the ads that run during the Super Bowl are better than the game itself, but not this year. “A pretty lame year,” said one advertising agency president; “a little quiet” was the quote from another ad agency executive regarding the game’s first quarter, when often the best ads appear. Plenty of commentary will analyze why, but only here will you learn the biggest reason why so many TV spots, Super Bowl vintage or not, are losers year after year.

“I’m ready for my close-up” says the faded movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of Hollywood’s most famous lines and yet one the agencies—and their paying clients—seem to forget all the time. With the average 30-second spot costing the sponsors over $5 million to air (over and above the production costs), Norma’s request isn’t just worth heeding; it’s essential.

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For two decades, I’ve been a market researcher using the tools of eye tracking and facial coding to learn people’s intuitive, natural, see-and-feel response to TV spots— and the results are crystal clear. As much as 70% of people’s gaze activity centers on the actors’ faces, and a similar percentage of all the emotional response to a TV spot will be linked to viewers taking in the emotions shown on the actors’ faces—especially during close-ups—because emotions are, frankly, so contagious. What the actor shows (if authentically rendered), the viewers feel because in life we’re looking for personalities that interest and matter to us. In business, never forget that the words “emotion” and “motivation” come from the same root word in Latin: movere, to move, to make something happen (whether a purchase or inspiring an employee to be more engaged).

A few spots this year heeded Norma’s request better than others. The Sprint ad full of robots with more animated faces than their stern human colleague was as close to a commercial with striking production values as any ad aired in the game’s opening moments. A Ram pick-up truck ad brimming over with Viking warriors offered us plenty of angry-faced close-ups of men who were as intense as they were lost. A T-Mobile ad used the strategy of resorting to babies or puppies by giving us a diverse rainbow of surprised, open-eyed infants.

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But against those minor successes, the commercials shown during Super Bowl LII featured the usual reliance on lots of action—too much—with often too little reason to care. A Kraft spot showed us far too many faces, and too quickly, for any of them to light an emotional spark. (When will agencies stop being so enamored by machine-gun-paced editing?) And while Intuit’s “The Thing Under the Bed” ad wasn’t so bad, its “Noise in the Attic” ad failed to leverage the power of facial expressions by showing us a cloaked ghost, then a CPA’s tiny face on a laptop computer, and finally the equally distant face of a spooked homeowner opening his attic’s trap door to see what was going on. Emotionally speaking, the answer for viewers in their homes: almost surely nothing.

In that way, “Noise in the Attic” joined many of its fellow Super Bowl spots this year in being the commercially still-born equivalent of how Sunset Boulevard opens—with a man floating face down in a swim pool, utterly, irretrievably dead.

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