2022 Super Bowl Ads - Winners and Losers
Which ads will sell products and not just entertain consumers or win advertising awards?
For anyone new here, I’m the founder of Woo Punch, a brand consultancy rooted in evidence-based brand design. I write about the evidence that debunks brand purpose, differentiation, brand love, loyalty marketing, customer personas, color psychology, mission statements, customer engagement, AdTech, and “hustle culture.”
THE SUPER BOWL COMMERCIAL MYTH
The most incredible Super Bowl ads were clever, emotional, funny, and inspirational.
Thanks for reading Branding Bullsh*t! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Instead of merely judging this year's Super Bowl ads on entertainment or emotional appeal alone, like every other Super Bowl recap article you will read, let's evaluate this year's ads based on actual effectiveness.
Which ads will help the brands being advertised sell products, and which ads will simply help the creative agencies behind them win awards?
THE 5 KEYS TO AN EFFECTIVE SUPER BOWL AD
Before grading each Super Bowl ad, let's discuss the 5 keys to an effective ad. Certainly, other factors can go into whether or not an ad is effective, but the following 5 keys should be the primary objectives of any effective ad:
Each key is not created equal. I graded each Super Bowl ad by attaching different weights to each key element of an effective ad. For example, if a Super Bowl ad is clever and funny, but the brand being advertised is lost in the mix, that ad will have a lower grade than a boring but well-branded ad.
Before I go into more detail regarding each key, let's first look at the significance of each within the whole picture. I've assigned percentages to each key.
DISTINCTIVENESS - 65%
The first key factor for an effective Super Bowl ad is distinctiveness, and I estimate that distinctiveness accounts for up to 65% of ad effectiveness. If an ad isn't strongly linked to the brand being advertised throughout, it will essentially be a waste of money.
CONSISTENCY - 20%
The second biggest factor for an effective Super Bowl ad is consistency. I estimate consistency accounts for up to 20% of an ad's effectiveness.
If the brand being advertised has never been advertised before, or the brand has consistently advertised but their Super Bowl ad is dramatically different from all of their other ads, consumers will find it hard to link the ad to its correct brand.
BROAD REACH - 8%
The third factor is broad reach. As a whole, a broad reach is more important than consistency and even distinctiveness. I estimate that broad-reaching advertising channels account for as much as 80% of advertising effectiveness in some cases. But here, I'm grading content, not advertising channels.
As a result, I estimate that broad-reaching messaging or content accounts for around 8% of a Super Bowl ad's effectiveness relative to all other key factors. Therefore, instead of catering to a specific demographic or psychographic, Super Bowl ads should target all category buyers with their messaging and content.
CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS - 5%
The 4th most significant factor for an effective ad is Category Entry Points (CEPs).
I'll explain this in more detail later. Essentially, rather than trying to differentiate your brand, you should try to tap into why consumers buy from your category in the first place before they even consider brands. You can become one of the handfuls of brands considered by linking your brand to occasions to buy from your category.
One caveat is that while CEPs are extremely helpful, they take a lot of time and repetition to build. Since I'm just grading individual ads here without considering a brand's overall advertising, I estimate CEPs account for around 5% of ad effectiveness during stand-alone Super Bowl ads.
ATTENTION - 2%
Finally, attention is the least important (but still critical) key to an effective ad.
While marketing gurus and the general public think attention is the most essential key for a Super Bowl ad, attention is complicated and misunderstood. I will explain why later, but I estimate that attention accounts for around 2% of Super Bowl ad effectiveness.
My estimates for each key aren't an exact science, and there are additional keys that can be helpful that I don't discuss here, but I wanted to grade these ads on the most critical factors.
Now let's go into each key in more detail.
#1 DISTINCTIVENESS IN ADVERTISING
If viewers can't tell which brand is being advertised in a Super Bowl commercial, the majority of that Super Bowl ad's $6 - $13 million price tag will be wasted.
You might think that every brand knows this, but the 2022 Super Bowl proved (once again) that most brands still haven't learned this simple fact. This trend is primarily the result of brands attempting to pretend their commercials are entertaining short films, not ads selling products.
It stems from the misconception that consumers (millennials and gen z in particular) are turned off by branded advertising. Unfortunately, consumers are sensing a lot of manipulation as brands have recently begun pandering to younger generations they perceive as having higher ideals.
The idea behind branding is rooted in Associative Network Theory (ANT), which is rooted in the idea that we are built to do as little thinking as possible. ANT tells us that our memories are made up of a vast network of concepts and senses that are linked to one another through time and repetition.
The same is true for brands.
Over time we have learned to link the sensory cues of golden arches, a red roof, and the tune of the song, "I'm Lovin' It," with the concept of McDonald's, even if we don't see the word "McDonald's."
Many brands (and creative agencies) don't prioritize showcasing their distinctive design elements in Super Bowl ads because they're embarrassed by them. They are afraid that a logo, tagline, established spokesperson (who isn't a celebrity), or jingle will give them away as a brand, not an entertainer.
Ignoring ANT, and prioritizing entertainment over clear branding, is silly for two reasons:
Consumers are not delusional. They know you are a brand selling products. Hiding your brand isn't going to change that.
Most viewers are distracted by the food they're eating, their friend's joke, or the cute girl sitting next to them. They need help processing your ad with as little mental involvement as possible.
This year we saw FTX, CoinBase, Salesforce, Expedia, Chevrolet, Crypto, Meta, and countless others hide their brands in favor of Larry David, a cheap QR code publicity stunt, Matthew McConaughey, Ewan McGregor, The Sopranos, LeBron James, and animatronics.
What did these commercials achieve if no one will remember the brands behind them in a year or longer when they finally buy from their categories?
One example of an underrated winner this year was WeatherTech. Admittedly, WeatherTech's ad was boring, but at least they didn't hide their brand.
Only one group benefits from funny, clever, or emotional ads that hide their respective brands. Creative agencies.
Pinnacle Advertising won't win an award for their Weather Tech ad, but Accenture Interactive already has for CoinBase's ploy for attention.
#2 CONSISTENCY IN ADVERTISING
Consistency here means two things.
A brand should advertise throughout the year, not just during the Super Bowl.
Distinctive design elements and/or themes should be consistent in most ads for at least 6 months to influence purchase behavior among a large enough aggregate of non-buyers and light buyers (the critical buyers for growth).
Most of the advertising effectiveness is achieved by consistently reminding consumers you exist. If consumers don't know you exist, you will never be considered among the handful of brands consumers gravitate toward in buying situations.
By consistently advertising to the same consumers over a long period, you can build more familiarity among those consumers. For example, you can't spend your entire advertising budget on one Super Bowl ad and expect consumers to remember you when they are in a buying situation in a year.
90-95% of potential buyers are not in the market to buy any brand in your category when they see your ad. When most consumers are ready to buy a car or even beer, they will have forgotten your Super Bowl ad.
Additionally, you can't leverage distinctiveness if your brand is all over the map every time a consumer sees one of your ads.
Without consistency, your brand's distinctive design elements are unable to link your brand in consumers' minds. Brands grow through getting buyers of all frequencies to buy a little more, but most growth is attained through non-buyers (people who have never bought your brand before) and light buyers (people who rarely buy your brand).
If you have a $13 million advertising budget, spread it throughout the year, reinforcing your brand assets. Don't waste it all on one completely novel ad, hoping to win some advertising award.
#3 BROAD REACH IN ADVERTISING
Congratulations! You have already achieved broad reach if you have an ad in a Super Bowl.
Brands grow through getting buyers of all frequencies to buy a little more, but most growth is attained through non-buyers (people who have never bought your brand before) and light buyers (people who rarely buy your brand).
Non-buyers and light buyers need to be reminded you exist. This is why mass advertising is far more effective than hyper-targeted advertising. It reaches people who aren't currently in the market to buy. But there's another element of reach that's important as well.
Not only should you invest most of your advertising budget in broad-reaching advertising channels, but you should also attempt to reach all buyers of your category with your messaging and content.
The concept of "customer personas" (identifying a specific "ideal customer" and catering your message to that particular demographic and psychographic) is dangerous. When brands cater their messaging (and advertising channels) to a "customer persona," they risk isolating the vast majority of category buyers. You would be surprised at the heterogeneity of your category.
For example, Harley-Davidson riders also buy crotch rockets, Diet Coke drinkers drink Monster Energy, and Jeep owners also buy Toyotas.
If you only focus on getting "ideal customers" to buy your brand, you isolate most of your potential buyers.
In this year's Super Bowl, we saw many catering to older generations with nostalgic throwbacks. This is better than catering to younger generations (like gen z) who have no money, but brands should cater to all ages, races, genders, and personality types. Not for the sake of signaling to buyers that you are welcoming and inclusive, but to reach all buyers of your category.
#4 CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS IN ADVERTISING
Once you have invested in consistent, broad-reaching advertising channels that reach all buyers of your category and have a strategy for prominently showcasing your distinctive design elements throughout your ad, you can start thinking about your ad's central message.
That's where Category Entry Points (CEPs) come in.
WHAT ARE CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS?
CEPs are situations where consumers buy from a brand's category before considering which brands exist within that category.
CEPs are consumers' needs when buying from a category, where consumers are when buying from a category, who they are with when buying from a category, and what they use alongside a category.
As an example, some common CEPs associated with fast food are a cheap meal (a need), while traveling (where consumers are), during a lunch break (when they buy), with kids (who they're with), and after getting gas during a road trip (with what).
Brands must create and reinforce a strong link between themselves, their category, and the most common CEPs in their category. This is primarily done through advertising, although it is also done through distribution channels, PR, sales, and anywhere else the brand is visible to potential buyers.
Taking a CEP approach to advertising asks, "Why are consumers in the market to buy from my category at all?" not, "Why would consumers buy my brand over others?"
HOW TO LEVERAGE CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS
To illustrate how CEPs can be leveraged for brand growth, let's use Burger King as an example. Burger King needs to do two things for a CEP approach to work.
They must establish themselves as part of the fast-food category in consumers' minds. If Burger King isn't considered fast food, they have no chance of competing within the category.
They need to link themselves with the most common situations consumers find themselves in when deciding to eat fast food (CEPs). If consumers don't think of Burger King as cheap or fast, it will also struggle to gain footing in the category since most consumers buy fast food for a quick meal and the small price tag.
Using a Category Entry Points strategy, Burger King must leverage advertising content to create and reinforce strong brand/CEP links among consumers. They would be wise to show consumers experiencing the benefits of the CEP they are attempting to link to the brand. For example, to establish a link between themselves and cheap food, Burger King might show consumers saving money or advertise their value menu.
The ultimate goal is for Burger King to establish strong links between all typical fast-food CEPs, but they wouldn't want to incorporate too many CEPs into a single ad. Consumers are too distracted to pick up on more than one strong concept in advertising. Instead, Burger King must focus on one CEP at a time until that link is established, move on to the next CEP, and alternate between them to refresh and strengthen those links as they decay in consumer memories.
CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS VS DIFFERENTIATION
It's important to note that a CEP strategy differs from a differentiation strategy. Differentiation isn't practical for growth because bigger brands are linked more broadly to more CEPs than smaller brands.
Marketers and brand strategists might believe that Mountain Dew is linked most strongly to the CEP when looking for a pick-me-up because they have seemingly worked hard to differentiate the brand as a highly caffeinated drink. But, in reality, Mountain Dew is linked just as broadly to the same variety of common CEPs as Coca-Cola, Sprite, and Dr. Pepper (when thirsty, a refreshment on a hot day, a drink to go with a meal, something to satisfy boredom, etc.).
Mountain Dew might have been more strongly linked to when looking for a pick-me-up at first, but their CEPs grew with them as they grew. If they had remained almost exclusively linked to this CEP, they wouldn't be as big as they are now (for the same reason Red Bull and Monster Energy have remained relatively small comparatively).
The reality is that most consumers are not thinking about the differences between brands within a category because they are looking to save as much time as possible, and very few brands within a category are truly different anyway. So by appealing to a small subset of consumers who are actively thinking about the differences between brands, you will often isolate light buyers of your category who don't. Those light buyers are your workhorses for brand growth.
BUT, CATEGORY ENTRY POINTS CAN TURN AROUND TO BITE YOU
Consumers use CEPs as mental shortcuts to cut time when deciding between brands. The more common CEPs a brand is linked to, the more familiar consumers will be with that brand. For example, if a brand is linked to the right CEP during a Super Bowl ad, more consumers will think of that brand when buying from the category (of course, this will only have short-term effects if your advertising is not consistent outside of the Super Bowl).
But be warned. Suppose distinctive sensorial brand cues are not present throughout your ad. In that case, you could execute your CEP strategy to perfection and still spend a large chunk of your $7 million Super Bowl budget on free advertising for your largest competitors.
Suppose a consumer doesn't know which brand is being advertised (because of a lack of distinctive sensorial brand cues or teasing them out until the very end). In that case, distracted consumers will assume the ad is for a different brand. Which brand? The largest brand in the category.
This year, we saw several ads for cryptocurrency brands, but none of them leveraged strong, previously established sensorial brand cues. This will likely get consumers to start thinking about the crypto category, then gravitate toward the largest crypto brands. As a result, smaller crypto brands this year probably wasted their money, and more prominent crypto brands, even those that didn't advertise, benefited from consumer confusion.
#5 ATTENTION IN ADVERTISING
Ah, attention. We finally get to what most advertising experts, and the general public, believe is the most significant factor determining which Super Bowl ads were great and which were flops. Most experts will tell you that it was a waste of money if your Super Bowl ad wasn't entertaining enough to be noticed and actively paid attention to.
This isn't true.
THE DANGERS OF HIGH ATTENTION
We process ads at different levels of attention, and sometimes we process ads with no attention. But, more importantly, advertising can be more effective when it avoids high levels of attention. Let me explain.
When we sit back and enjoy a commercial, we pay little active attention to it. We don't analyze ads we like with high levels of attention. Instead, we turn our brains off and enjoy them. When we don't analyze advertising, we are more susceptible to an ad's influence over our purchase decisions. That's because the more attention we pay to an ad, the more room there is for us to counter-argue an ad's message and get turned off.
If a Super Bowl ad tries to be too funny and fails, or a brand attempts to paint themselves as heroes of some societal cause, consumers' bullshit detectors will perk up. Most consumers won't remember an ad they argue with for long, but many will. So it's better to play it safe and avoid active attention.
There are a few ways to ensure your advertising isn't analyzed with high levels of attention but still remembered.
You can create a universally enjoyable "viral" ad.
You can lay low and not look like you're trying to do anything too clever while emphasizing a CEP and prominently displaying your brand assets.
You can create a universally enjoyed ad while emphasizing a CEP and displaying your brand assets.
An example of option 1 is the 2011 Super Bowl ad, "The Force," featuring a little kid dressed up as Darth Vader.
"The Force" was universally clever and funny, so very few people argued with the fact that remote start had been around since the 1980s or that Volkswagen was practically founded by Adolf Hitler, a real-life villain. But this approach failed to achieve advertising's primary objective. Everyone remembers the iconic ad, but no one remembers Volkswagen.
An example of option 2 is this year's WeatherTech ad. No one will remember this ad in a year, but WeatherTech's logo was prominently displayed, ultimately making it a more effective ad than "The Force." This ad won't win any creativity awards, but it likely achieved advertising's primary objective in a way "The Force" didn't. Sales. Consumers who buy protective rubber for their cars will now recognize the WeatherTech brand.
Finally, an example of option 3 is almost any Super Bowl ad from Budweiser over the last 30 years. Most consumers (old enough) remember (and enjoyed) the talking frogs from the 1990s, and no one confused Budweiser for Miller or Coors. The same can be said about most Clydesdale ads (even though this year's ad wasn't nearly as engaging or as well-branded as past ads) and Budweiser's Wassup! campaign.
Fortunately, in the case of the Clydesdales, Budweiser had already established and reinforced a brand asset that can double as an emotional asset. You can't build a storyline around a logo, but you can around horses. So even though Gary Vee's advertising agency dropped the ball in more ways than one with this ad, Budweiser's Clydesdales (regardless of poor execution) were still able to act as "workhorses" for the brand.
THE SUPER BOWL PUTS BRANDS AT AN ATTENTION DISADVANTAGE
Finally, the Super Bowl is a scarce advertising occasion. Many consumers are actively paying attention to every Super Bowl ad. They are silencing their friends during commercial breaks and letting them talk during the game. This puts advertisers at a disadvantage and forces them to do what they can to lower attention levels for Super Bowl ads.
This year T-Mobile tried to be funny and failed, Toyota and Google Pixel tried to paint themselves as heroes, and FTX started funny but then insulted viewers who weren't sold on the hype around crypto (not to mention the fact that no one will remember FTX was behind the ad).
I think the most egregious of these was Google Pixel. The ad showed people of color in terrible photos, then advertised Google's new Real Tone technology that captures darker skin tones better.
For most consumers, counter-argument to this ad's message will be high for two reasons.
While capturing the skin tones of people of color is a real challenge in photography, consumers aren't dumb. The before photos were either taken using old cameras or were lit so poorly that even white people would turn into a silhouette. The after photos were taken by professional photographers with professional lighting. In the past, brands could fool consumers with cheap tricks like this. Now that everyone is on Instagram, not so much.
Consumers know Google is a brand (with quite a bad reputation, I might add) that sells stuff. Most consumers won't see Google as some hero but as a brand trying to tap into an untapped market. Or worse, as a brand pandering to people of color because it's the trendy thing to do now.
Even consumers who might have praised this ad in front of their friends likely won't buy a Google phone.
GRADING THIS YEAR’S SUPER BOWL ADS
TOP 5 BEST
It steals glances, is funny without trying to be too amusing, links Lay's with the CEP of snacking with a friend, and is exceptionally well branded from beginning to end.
I haven't seen Lay's advertised in a while, and when they have, they haven't used Seth Rogan or Paul Rudd before.
They make up for this by incorporating the Lay's bag in almost every single shot, and they even use the bag to further the storyline at times.
Caesar's Sportsbook has consistently used JB Smoove dressed as Caesar throughout the football season.
This ad will be entirely ignored by most Super Bowl viewers who will never bet on sports.
That being said, for an ad highlighting a brand within a niche category, it will likely help Caesar's gain significant market share.
There is no mistaking Pringle's iconic tube for any other type of snack.
Pringles is aware of this fact and has leveraged its distinctive packaging to perfection.
I haven't seen Pringles advertise in a while, and there are too many CEPs being highlighted here (i.e., with a significant other, at a party, snacks for major life events, when hungry in between classes at school, and more).
They make up for this by ensuring distracted viewers still process Pringle's brand.
There is no mistaking that this is an ad for the NFL, it links football with family involvement (not just dad watching alone), and it steals glances in a crowded room with novelty.
Additionally, it leverages NFL players from history, not just the current season, which will engage people who don't watch football that often.
During the Super Bowl, several other brands also like to use NFL players as a theme, which will confuse this ad with others in people's minds. That being said, there's nothing the NFL can do about that, and this fact can be an advantage for the NFL by giving the brand even more screen time.
Amazon has done an excellent job separating Alexa from Siri and "Hey Google" over the years, allowing them to be more creative with their advertising while still showcasing their distinct brand.
Alexa's voice also acts as an audio brand asset, which helps consumers who are in the other room or looking down at their phones still process the ad.
While most viewers will never pay enough attention to this ad, some consumers are already nervous about devices like Alexa listening in on private conversations. If anyone is paying enough attention and feels this way, they will likely feel uncomfortable with the message of this ad and argue with it.
THE TOP 5 WORST
I like the message of this ad. Technology has made us more isolated as a society, and the "metaverse" (if it ever takes off) will worsen this.
The message here has absolutely nothing to do with Salesforce, a tool that helps businesses keep track of sales. Most consumers will argue the hell out of this ad as a result.
Additionally, Matthew McConaughey is already taken as a brand asset for Lincoln, and celebrities make for pretty weak brand assets anyway. The best spokespeople are unknown for anything else because there is no mental competition in our minds when we see them. Whenever we see Stephanie Courtney, we know we're seeing an ad for Progressive, not a trailer for a new movie. Sorry, Stephanie. I hope they're paying you well!
This ad has a lot of cuts and audio disruptions, which will steal glances from viewers.
Most people have never heard of Hologic because they've never seen a Hologic ad. As a result, they must prioritize educating the public on what they do first and how consumers can use their services. Otherwise, viewers will be confused and filter out the ad. Because they are unknown, this ad might remind people to schedule a health screening, but they're not going to do it through Hologic. Time will tell if Hologic uses the Super Bowl as a launching point for consistent future advertising.
It grabs everyone's attention, gets people talking, and can be leveraged for some short-term PR. They at least showed their logo at the end.
No one took their phones out and scanned their screen...
Well, maybe 20 million people did (according to Coinbase), and perhaps 20 million people broke the site (according to press releases from Coinbase). But...
When people did visit the site, they would have immediately left as soon as they landed on it. Why?
Those already trading cryptocurrencies would likely have already started using Coinbase or a Coinbase competitor. They aren't going to switch because they scanned a QR code.
Many people will be turned off by the gimmick because they would have expected something more remarkable than an app trying to get them to sign up for something, and most people could care less about crypto.
Finally, I don't believe Coinbase when they say 20% of the 102 million viewers of the Super Bowl took their phones out and scanned the QR code (not one person at my Super Bowl party did, even though we all talked about the ad). Even if their site did get "20 million clicks in one minute," those clicks could have been bots Coinbase paid for.
Why would they do something so silly?
If Coinbase can send press releases out to major news networks touting 20 million clicks, their stock price will shoot up even if they don't get new users, and it did by $2 - $3 a share. If the Coinbase site did crash from all the traffic, Coinbase allowed it to crash so they could feed journalists a news story.
Wasn't the whole point of the ad to get the masses to visit your website at once?
The ad is funny, especially if you're a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan like me, and it gets people to look up, even if they can't hear the ad over their friends talking.
When those viewers that can't hear the ad look up, they won't see any cues indicating who the ad is for. Even if they look up at the very end, they likely haven't heard of FTX since FTX doesn't consistently advertise.
Many viewers that did pay attention to the ad haven't fallen for the hype of cryptocurrencies, are too scared to risk their savings, and aren't going to take kindly to FTX insulting them for not investing in risky markets.
It steals glances and links the brand with its app's function to help parents teach their kids about finances.
They went all-in on a Super Bowl ad without building familiarity through consistent advertising leading up to the Super Bowl.
They also seem to think they have locked in Ty Burrell as a brand asset, judging from the fact that he's all over their website. If they have, good for them, but I highly doubt Burrell will turn down all other acting roles long enough to be Greenlight's exclusive spokesperson.
Caesar Sportsbook A
Uber Eats B
Michelob Seltzer B
Bud Seltzer B
T-Mobile Internet B
Draft Kings C+
Toyota “joneses” C
Taco Bell C
Michelob Ultra C
T-Mobile Cellular C
T-Mobile Cellular 2 C
Avocados from Mexico C
Thursday Night Football C
Rocket Mortgage C
Sam's Club C
Cue Health C
Irish Spring C
Turkish Airlines C
Bud Next C
Google Pixel D
Quickbooks + MailChimp D
Planet Fitness D
Toyota “brothers” F
Thanks for reading Branding Bullsh*t! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.