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The Science Behind Super Bowl Ads

There was a pretty big football game in Atlanta on Sunday evening – you may have heard.

Super Bowl LIII may not have been the most exciting or high-scoring affair, but at least a few of the commercials were less disappointing. The defensive struggle between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams yielded a score of only 13-3, making it the lowest scoring match in Super Bowl history. Even the halftime show made most viewers shrug.

While commercial breaks during most sports events mean a trip to the refrigerator for a snack, this year the Super Bowl ads may have been the most exciting part of the night. The Super Bowl has long served as something of a showcase for advertisers, who spend big to secure space during the most-watched TV event of the year: Advertisements shown during the Super Bowl cost upward of $5 million for a 30-second spot. Companies rely on these ads to propel their business, and an ill-conceived, offensive or otherwise ineffective commercial can affect their financial success. This commercial competition is often known as the “Ad Bowl.” There is even a website devoted to tracking the offerings in real time.

The ads this year varied from funny to touching; some fired on all cylinders, while others seemed to miss the mark completely, though most avoided politics. Pepsi’s self-deprecating commercial, in which Steve Carell, Lil Jon and Cardi B school a young server who asks a Coke-ordering customer “Is Pepsi OK?”, was particularly funny considering the Super Bowl’s location in the city famous as the birthplace of Coca-Cola. The Hyundai ad featuring Jason Bateman as an elevator operator directing people to the different circles of hell, including a root canal, jury duty and a vegan dinner party, hit all the right notes. This year ad agencies also seemed to notice that women enjoy football, as there were several notable advertisements aimed at women, including Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Olay commercial and Serena Williams’ Bumble spot.

Several commercials highlighted the relatively new public obsession with artificial intelligence, with varying degrees of success. The Amazon spot detailing some of Alexa’s “fails” – featuring Forest Whitaker, Harrison Ford and a very cute Boston terrier, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson of “Broad City,” and astronaut Scott Kelly – humorously reminded us that even Alexa may not be infallible. Commercials by Michelob Ultra, Pringles and SimpliSafe illustrated that even though robots may be superior on many levels, they cannot do everything a human can.

TurboTax may have taken things too far with the introduction of “RoboChild,” a creepy kid-like robot whose dream is to become a TurboTax Live CPA. When he (it?) discovers that he cannot be a Live CPA because he is not human and does not have real emotions, he says, “I am sad” and immediately breaks into maniacal laughter, introducing a “nightmare fuel” element TurboTax presumably didn’t aim for. At least the AI commercials this year are still pro-human overall, which means maybe robots won’t take over the universe any time soon.

One advertisement I found fascinating was among the quietest. Zoe Kravitz starred in a Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold spot in which she sits at a table in a rainforest with two microphones and a bottle of Michelob. She whispers into the microphones, taps rhythmically on the bottle with her fingernails, cracks the top, pours the beer and allows the fizz to dissipate. What makes the ad unique is that it is using autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, to peddle the product. People who experience ASMR typically describe it as a tingling, euphoric feeling, usually emanating from the head or scalp and traveling down the body, elicited by comforting sounds and videos.

Although ASMR is not yet widely studied and documented, recent research from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom has shown that, when exposed to ASMR audio, test subjects became excited physically even as their heart rates slowed. Researchers at the University of Winnipeg have seen initial evidence that that when subjects hear ASMR audio, unexpected teams of neurons fire together in the brain. We may see more companies start using ASMR to appeal to a viewer’s subconscious. If the sights they see and sounds they hear are pleasing to the senses, viewers may be more inclined to buy the featured product.

ASMR isn’t the only subconscious manipulation potentially affecting the football-watching experience. Another interesting study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication considered the ways that the outcome of football play reviews can affect a consumer’s perception of a brand. Doctoral student Jihoon “Jay” Kim and associate professor of advertising Jooyoung Kim have theorized that a consumer who views an ad while referees are reviewing a crucial call will develop a positive view of the brand if the team they root for ultimately benefits from the call. To test this theory, the researchers developed an online experiment where 400 students watched various branded instant replay videos in several scenarios including rivalry games, nonrivalry games, suspenseful games and nonsuspenseful games. Study participants reported feeling a more positive response to the brands they saw when the referees’ decision benefitted their team late in the game or when the score was close.

Technological advancements allow advertisers new tools for targeting consumers individually; for instance, they can market to certain consumers based on their geographical location. Jay Kim and Jooyoung Kim have posited that advertising could also purposefully incorporate the concepts of schadenfreude – the feeling of joy at the expense of others – and its opposite, “gluckschmerz,” which is feeling unhappiness at the fortune of others. After all, when a call goes your team’s way, you feel joy at the expense of the other team, and vice versa. Jooyoung Kim said, “Both concepts show how morally weak humans can be in social settings: we like when our opponent fails and don’t like when the opponent succeeds. But that’s the reality of being human, and the marketers can seize this untapped opportunity for their brands.”

Anecdotal evidence backs up the University of Georgia team’s findings. I am a die-hard Denver Broncos fan, and I too know the heartbreak of watching a bad Super Bowl (XLVIII – which was 2014, for those of you who were not scarred by the experience). Bruno Mars performed the halftime show, and while I like his music, sometimes I still get a bad taste in my mouth when I hear it thinking about that horrible game. Five years later, I still associate him and his music with my team’s epic failure.

The Ad Bowl seeks to develop creative ways to sell product to the millions of Super Bowl viewers each year. While it is no surprise to see technology as the subject of many of these ads, the innovations behind the scenes may have wider-reaching consequences. Using recent science such as an improved understanding of ASMR and advanced algorithms to target consumers more narrowly may lead to a variety of advertising breakthroughs. I’m excited to witness these new tactics over the next few years – as long as those pesky robots don’t take over.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Palisades Hudson’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, now available in paperback and as an e-book.

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