Each year we hear about the rising costs of Super Bowl commercials (this year a 30 second ad cost $3.2 million!), and while some of the ads we watch are funny and entertaining, the bigger question is do they actually work? In other words, are people the day after the Super Bowl more psychologically motivated to buy a Coke, or create a new webpage using Go Daddy? Remember, while advertisers want you to laugh and think of their brand in a favorable light, those desires take a back seat to the real goal — getting you to buy what they are selling.
Of course, if you ask someone in advertising the question about the usefulness of a Super Bowl ad you will inevitably be told that of course they work otherwise companies wouldn’t spend millions of dollars buying the ad time. While that answer sounds convincing, it’s not necessarily true. Remember when you were a kid and you were told just because “everybody is doing something” doesn’t make it right? In fact, what we really might be seeing in the advertising world is a pluralistic ignorance whereby it is simply assumed the ads must be worth their weight in gold, when really they are not. Just for kicks, do you remember what ad the still shot at the top of this column is from?
Psychologists have introduced us to the mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle, that essentially states the more familiar we become with something the more likely we are to trust and prefer that product/idea. This theory likely explains why companies like Coca Cola still buy billboards and ads in magazines even though there aren’t more than a handful of people on the planet not familiar with Coke! OK, so maybe Coke, McDonalds, and Chevrolet can get away with the mere exposure effect, but what about the lesser known companies — does a sassy, one-time 30 second commercial from a non-iconic company really drive revenue? Or is there an ignorant perception out there that advertisers sell to companies that confidently says “If you buy an ad spot on the Super Bowl you are sure to cash in!”
Personally, I cannot remember a single time in all my years of watching the Super Bowl where I actually bought (or even considered buying) a product simply because of the commercial. In fact, I can honestly say that while this year’s commercials weren’t all that exciting to me, I have thoroughly enjoyed many of the commercials from years past…..but still didn’t buy any of those products. In fact, in all my years of teaching and studying psychology I have never once seen anything beyond the possible mere exposure effect “working,” if indeed people really do go out and buy new products they learned about during the Super Bowl.
I’m curious if the Super Bowl commercials drove you to buy a new product? Did any of the commercials dramatically change your thinking about a product (even if you still didn’t buy it)? Don’t expect advertisers to tackle this question any time soon, as their interest in to continue developing expensive ads — not uncovering any truths about their ads not working.