Did consumers get what they wanted from this year’s Big Game ads?
Marketing consultancy sooth uses behavioral science to get to the heart of the answer by Ian Baer, founder and chief soothsayer
Now that the Big Game is over, the internet is flooded with expert opinions on the best and worst commercials of the evening. Most critiques focus on the cleverness, humor, use of celebrities, and creative freshness of the work – and with a few exceptions (such as USA Today’s Ad Meter rankings based on real-time consumer reactions), they don’t at all address how the spots may drive actual business performance for these brands by giving consumers what they need from the campaigns. Considering these brands have invested anywhere from 10% to 75% of their annual marketing budgets in the Big GAme, the strategic marketing consultancy sooth applied its patent-pending sooth method to this year’s commercials – to determine which spots really gave consumers what they need from these ads, and which left them wanting more.
The unique sooth method isolates the 10 Emotional Elements that drive 70% of all consumer decisions: Purpose, Confidence, Self-Image, Expression, Fun, Freedom, Wellness, Doing Good, Community, and Security – known as the soothscale. Using its proprietary interpretive process and third-party industry analysis of key trends and consumer buying priorities, sooth determined the top three Elements for each of the consumer categories represented among this year’s crop of ads – then scored each ad from 0-30 to determine its overall emotional resonance.
Five trends observed by sooth define the top and bottom performers in this year’s “game with the Big Game”:
Brands that scored highest managed to strike a balance between relevant brand messaging and the genuine emotions that matter most to consumers in their relative categories. Whether they were going for laughs, tears or inspiration – they delivered in ways that felt authentic and true to both the brand and the people who buy it.
Inclusion was clearly a significant theme this year for many categories, and these messages landed positively for the most part. However, some brands did a much better job of making their inclusive angle central to the brand’s story (NFL, Remy Martin) as opposed to feeling closer to pandering, culture-washing, or “checking boxes” on key demographics as appeared to be the case for Doritos odd mix of celebrities stealing each other’s spotlights (a gag that also fell flat according to sooth’s scoring of the Pepsi Zero Sugar campaign).
“Find the Product” seemed to become like playing “Where’s Waldo” in many of this year’s campaigns – whether you’re trying to spy a Dorito actually being consumed in that brand’s campaign or pausing on the fleeting image of a glass of Remy Martin in an otherwise inspiring Serena WIlliams spot. According to sooth’s analysis, if you didn’t know Workday, SquareSpace, or LImit Break before you saw their ads – chances are you still have no idea.
Self-referential or “meta” concepts consistently appear among sooth’s lowest-rated spots for 2023, seemingly more focused on being clever (or in the case of Molson Coors, squeezing three brands into one :30 spot) than on connecting with audiences clearly and genuinely.
The flood of QR codes and calls to action to continue the story of an ad online is both understandable for advertisers – and questionable in terms of how much distraction from the biggest sports event of the year consumers are willing to endure. One spot (for Planters) even opened with an immediate direction to see the full ad online – which implied to consumers that the best work was actually omitted from the TV commercial. So while QR codes to enable action are unquestionably in service to the consumer, there was also a lot of onus put on consumers for extra effort that sooth sees potentially backfiring on some brands.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
T-Mobile – The Bradley Cooper spot featuring his mom was heartwarming. Still, the John Travolta collaboration scored a perfect 30 out of 30 for delivering on the three soothscale Elements that drive tech purchases among US consumers: Freedom, Confidence and Fun. And the “Summer Nights” earworm sure doesn’t hurt in terms of making the spot memorable for consumers.
NFL – Unexpected, inclusive and timely, this spot scored across the Elements of Fun, Expression, and Freedom – the three keys to connecting with consumers for entertainment brands. A female empowerment story is probably the last thing many people expected from the NFL, and it paid off in a huge way.
United – One of the biggest surprises of the evening, this spot took a very timely stance against lower-priced competitors (particularly Southwest) that may have left people stranded recently – and delivered it in a way that feels like help to travel industry consumers based on the top three Elements of Freedom, Security and a sense of belonging (Community) when booking their next plane trip.
Avocados from Mexico – Another big surprise winner was this spot, starring Anna Faris and showing a kinder, healthier, and decidedly more fun alternate reality that could have been ours if only she chose the avo over the apple in the Garden of Eden. It scored on all three critical Emotional Elements - Freedom, Wellness, and Self-Image – while pushing its nutritional message in a non-preachy way.
PopCorners – In a battle of widely hyped and teased snack food campaigns, the mini-episodes of Breaking Bad from the cult classic’s original creators and stars managed to score across the
key Elements of Fun, Freedom, and Wellness whether you were a fan of the show or not. It managed to stay faithful to its source material while delivering appetite appeal and positioning PopCorners as a healthier choice than other salty snack alternatives – and that other stuff that Walter White used to make before he turned his attention to our collective munchies.
Bud Light – As the entire beer category shifted towards inclusive messaging and better-for-you brands, Bud Light transformed from party fuel to relationship material right before our eyes. The spot delivered a refreshing take on the category, rising above its competitors (and corporate siblings) on game night. For giving consumers the Self-Image, Fun, and sense of Community they want when reaching into the beer aisle, Bud Light takes our category honors for 2023.
BEST OF THE REST
Dexcom – While this ad felt highly conventional (including its use of Nick Jonas), it was also clear and compelling. It delivered on all three soothscale Elements for the healthcare category – Wellness, Confidence and Freedom – in a powerful way.
Google Pixel – Scored high on all the right emotions, although the brand’s portrayal also left us a little sad as its new feature felt like “cancel culture – now in the palm of your hand.” The Farmer’s Dog – Authentic and emotional, it struck many of the right notes for the category – and could have performed even better had its broad claims of longevity for one’s pet been strengthened with a more explicit reason to believe.
Jeep – While indeed a safe play for Stellaris, the spot gave off-roaders and the Jeep faithful precisely what they wanted from the brand. Will it open Jeep up to new audiences? Probably not.
Warner Bros. (The Flash)- WB deftly sidestepped the off-screen controversy surrounding star Ezra Miller and delivered the rare movie trailer worthy of a Big Game ad buy – with Michael Keaton’s return as Batman providing an emotionally satisfying hook that should give fans the sense of Fun, Expression, and Freedom they crave from escapist entertainment. Remy Martin – Much maligned in many reviews of this year’s ads, sooth’s analysis shows the spot delivered solidly on the critical Emotional Elements of Self-Image, Confidence, and Expression that drive purchase decisions in the spirits category – and made substantial use of its central celebrity in Serena Williams – the living embodiment of all three. While detractors point to the lack of attention to the product itself – sooth predicts it will drive many who have not considered the cognac brand to take a fresh look.
Booking.com (Freedom, Confidence, Security)
Oikos (Freedom, Wellness, Self-Image)
Skechers (Self-Image, Expression, Community)
Budweiser (Self-Image, Fun, Community)
Draft Kings (Fun, Freedom, Confidence)
Downy (Freedom, Wellness, Self-Image)
These brands all delivered solidly on the key Elements for their respective categories, and should resonate strongly with consumers' emotional needs according to soothscale analysis.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK
DoorDash (Confidence, Security, Community)
Paramount + (Fun, Expression, Freedom)
Limit Break (Fun, Expression, Freedom)
Heineken 0.0 (Self-Image, Fun, Community)
E-Trade (Security, Confidence, Self-Image)
Astellas (Wellness, Confidence, Freedom)
Planters (Freedom, Fun, Wellness)
Kia (Self-Image, Expression, Security)
Doritos (Freedom, Fun, Wellness)
Uber One (Confidence, Security, Community)
Ram Trucks (Self-Image, Expression, Security)
Michelob Ultra (Self-Image, Fun, Community)
Peacock (Fun, Expression, Freedom)
While each of these spots scored decently on their own merits, sooth’s scores determined none delivered entirely on the emotional needs of their targeted consumers -- or on their potential. Paul Rudd for Heineken was less entertaining than Paul Rudd for pretty much anything else. Astellas brought the subject of menopause into the light but played it safe in terms of genuinely destigmatizing the topic or creating a sense of potential freedom from its symptoms. Doritos seemed more focused on their celebrity love triangle than anything related to the actual emotional drivers of snacking purchases: Freedom, Fun, and Wellness (in this case, more state of mind than physical well-being). In fact, the ubiquitous chip brand didn’t even score highest in their category for best use of a triangle when you consider the brilliant and resonant PopCorners campaign.
BRINGING UP THE REAR
Rakuten (Confidence, Security, Community)
GM (Self-Image, Expression, Security)
Pepsi (Freedom, Community, Self-Image)
Crown Royal (Self-Image, Confidence, Expression)
e.l.f. (Self-Image, Expression, Wellness)
Workday (Confidence, Security, Community)
TurboTax (Security, Confidence, Self-Image)
FanDuel (Fun, Freedom, Confidence)
This grouping is held together by these brands’ mostly irrelevant use of celebrity talent. For example, consumers learned that Will Ferrell loves Netflix content in an ad for electric cars that failed to deliver on the emotions that drive consumer behavior in the automotive category. Similarly, consumers can now conclude that: playful rivals Steve Martin and Ben Stiller either love Pepsi Zero Sugar or are lying about loving it; Jennifer Coolidge found a very sticky line of cosmetics; Rob Gronkowski can’t kick; and your favorite ACTUAL rock stars want you to stop
thinking you’re a corporate rock star. The other commonality is that each of these brands scored low on every key Emotional Element that determines buying decisions within their categories. The sooth method predicts these spots will not significantly move the needle for their brands. And at a time when consumers are more worried about money than in more than a decade, TurboTax took the route of humor and frivolity –while failing to deliver resonance against the Elements that sooth has found matter most in trusting a consumer finance brand.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Dunkin – The brand reached into its authentic “Dunkies” roots by putting Boston native Ben Affleck at the drive-thru – and the surprise cameo from his once-again spouse Jennifer Lopez kept the smiles coming. But while the spot delivered high marks for Fun, sooth scored the ad very low in terms of Confidence, Freedom and Wellness – the three Emotional Elements that most drive purchase choices in the coffee category.
Coors Light and Miller Lite – Now that Molson Coors revealed its corporate structure on national TV (even including Blue Moon in the spot’s closing seconds – showing this brand to be something other than the craft beer its previous advertising has attempted to portray), most people were left wondering who this ad was really for. Fun? Yes. But by blurring the lines between these two brands, and not delivering on the Elements of Self-Image and Community that drive consumer preference in this category, sooth predicts that the whole will turn out to be far less than the sum of its parts.
Hellmann’s – People love a good pun, but this was unappetizing on every level. Even the delicious-looking (Jon) Hamm and Brie (Larson) panini got obscured by a one-note joke that somehow got stretched over 30 seconds and then diluted by the self-referential appearance of Pete Davidson (“wow, he really IS everywhere”). As for the key Emotional Elements of Freedom, Wellness and Self-Image that drive grocery aisle decisions, the ad fell flat, relying instead on squeezing all that it could from its cannibalistic attempts at humor that sooth predicts will not positively impact purchase behavior for the brand.
Squarespace – There’s a lot of “meta” at the bottom of sooth’s list – and this is another spot that was most likely too clever for its own good. While the creative made excellent use of Adam Driver as a talent, a meaningful message about the brand never landed. You learned nothing new if you knew Squarespace before (as a “website that makes websites”). And if you didn’t, the spot missed the mark on all three Emotional Elements of Confidence, Security and Community that drive decisions for Web Services brands. (Unless you are Adam Driver, in which case your Community score just went through the roof.)
M&M’s – One of several “so meta” campaigns on this year’s Big Game slate, this campaign struck all the wrong notes in sooth’s analysis. While the “troll the trolls” strategy may have felt right to people more focused on the brand’s politics than on the colorful chocolate lentils themselves (yes, that’s what they call them internally at Mars), the message didn’t deliver at all
on the emotions that drive candy purchases. Too many layers of misdirection in what landed as a joyless attempt at fun.
Where does this leave brands and agencies between this year’s Big Game and next? It does appear some brands are much more tuned-in to their customers’ emotional needs than others and should be able to ride the momentum of their $14 million-a-minute ad investment towards strong in-market performance. However, many more will need to rely on the other 364 days out of the year to give consumers what they want, expect and need from advertising. Given the unstable state of numerous economic and political factors defining American Life in 2023 – keeping on top of these moving targets may be the most powerful determinant of consumer preference and positive behavior in the rest of the year ahead.