Why studying Super Bowl ads matters

With the cost of airing a 30-second commercial in the Big Game going for up to $7 million, there’s a lot on the line for brands that buy into it – so while the Super Bowl can be a showcase for breakthrough creativity, it’s also important to pay close attention to what has worked in the past within the unique context of the biggest TV audience of the year.


  • It’s simple advice that isn’t used enough: Super Bowl advertisers need to tell stories in which the brand is integral to the plot, making it easier for consumers to see the connection between the story and the brand.
  • Brands should focus on aspects of their advertising that make it as easy as possible for viewers to understand what’s going on in the ad – these include not going too niche with things like Internet memes and celebrities.
  • This also means that brands with strong fluent devices, like characters, sonic branding, logos, or other elements that viewers easily associate with a brand, should double-down on them in Super Bowl advertising.

When it comes to appointment viewing, the Super Bowl remains supreme. Nielsen reported that last February’s Super Bowl LVII totaled more than 113 million viewers, making it the second most-watched game in Super Bowl history. Twenty-seven percent of Americans reported that the commercials were their favorite part of the Super Bowl in a 2022 survey. The Big Game is perhaps the only time of the year that some viewers actually tune in for the ads. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re being converted into customers, or even fans. 

Effective Super Bowl advertising is a balance of entertainment that drives positive, intense feelings among viewers and early and frequent branding. It’s a proven formula.

Except, over the last four years, marketers have been fumbling it. 

What’s the evidence? Over the last four years, System1 has used its effectiveness database of 150,000+ global ads, and a creative meta-analysis of all 308 Super Bowl ads, to help understand what resonates with Super Bowl viewers. Based on a five-star rating system, which measures emotional responses of 46,200 US respondents, Super Bowl ads perform averagely, on average. The group of commercials has never scored higher than 2.9 (in 2023), or lower than 2.6. For all the focus, expense and hype around this annual ad event, they perform only slightly better than all of the US commercials we’ve studied during the last four years, where the range is from 2.1 to 2.3.

How can a Super Bowl advertiser break out from the pack? One way is by employing the four strategies below, which System1 has gleaned from the spots with the 70 highest scores between 2020 and 2023.

Strategy 1: Make your brand a core component of your story

If your story is being told without mentioning your brand or product at all, then you haven’t integrated your brand and your storytelling well enough. Consumers won’t get why your ad is connected to your brand, and it could alienate them.

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The diaper brand Huggies has really excelled at centering the story on the brand, so much so that its Super Bowl LV ad in 2021 is the most effective Super Bowl ad of the last four years. A perfect balance of emotional resonance and strong branding, the “We got ya baby,” spot doesn’t overcomplicate things. People love babies, and babies need diapers. Sprinkle in a little humor, and Huggies had a winning play. It received high marks across the board, scoring 5.4 stars.

Another spot that nailed this strategy was the Lay’s Potato Chips ad “Stay Golden with Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd” from Super Bowl LVI in 2022. It features – surprise, surprise – Rogen (as a husband-to-be) and Paul (as best man) fondly sharing memories over a bag of Lay’s. The humor is near-constant, but so is the presence of Lay’s chips in a montage of absurd scenes featuring the two comic actors. The chips are central to the plot. How often can you say that? 

Strategy 2: Make sure your references tap into the collective consciousness

Everyone loves to be in on the joke, and no one likes to be out of the loop. This means that when bringing in internet references or characters from media to boost your creative, you have to be really careful that all your bases are covered. 

Make sure there’s something in your spot for almost everyone. This means you probably shouldn’t go with that super-niche, esoteric meme as your jumping-off-point, and you also probably want to make sure your celebrity talent is famous on more than just one platform and to more than one demographic.

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One brand that executed this strategy beautifully in 2020, during Super Bowl LIV, was Dorito’s, which consistently performs well at the Super Bowl year-to-year. But “Cool Ranch” might have been one of its most effective spots yet. 

Scoring a 5.1, the spot featured Lil Nas X, Sam Elliott, and Billy Ray Cyrus, catering to several cross-sections of America. But if somehow you hadn’t heard of any of those people, the whole setting and narrative of the spot is reminiscent of a Western gunslinger drama, so even the most out-of-the-loop would be in the know. 

Another very highly-rated Super Bowl ad from 2020 that masters this strategy is Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” spot, which spoofs the classic Groundhog Day. The spot, like the movie, stars Bill Murray and introduces him as being stuck once again in a loop in which every day is Groundhog Day. But in this commercial, when he spots a new Jeep pick-up model, he remarks “that’s new” and embarks on an escape from his time loop. It’s a great example of a branded narrative combined with a carefully-chosen cultural reference with mass appeal. 

Strategy 3: Fluent devices: if you’ve got ‘em, use ‘em

What System1 calls “fluent devices” such as brand-owned slogans or characters that are central to the brand, and the ad’s storyline, increase long-term effectiveness of advertising efforts. It’s just a fact. Fluent devices let viewers bring their prior knowledge of the brand to the ad, allowing them to build upon the narrative and grow affinity for its story. And yet, only 10% of Super Bowl ads in the last four years have used them.

When M&M’s pretended to switch out their candy mascots by replacing the hard shell chocolate characters with Maya Rudolph, a popular actress and former SNL star, the brand’s new campaign, featuring the fake new product “Ma&Ya’s” candy-coated clam bites was one of the most unpopular of the night. Emotional response trended negative, and the ad scored a 1.0! But toward the end of the night, when M&M’s aired a follow-up ad (“They’re Back for Good”), returning the characters to their spokes-candies’ role, they had the second highest-rated of any of the 2023 Super Bowl ads at 4.8.

Fluent devices at work for you!

Strategy 4: Show your brand early and often

This strategy seems like a no-brainer. You’re paying about $7 million for a slot in the Super Bowl, you’re going to make sure your brand is hard to miss. Right?

Wrong. Tons of marketers let branding go by the wayside so that they can tell an emotionally moving, resonant story that feels more like a film than an advertisement. Except, we’ve discovered that viewers don’t like not knowing what brand an ad is for. Instead of engaging with the content, they’ll approach it like a puzzle, and if they have to work too hard to solve it, they’re going to become annoyed. It’s not tacky to make your branding obvious in an ad – it’s an ad! Viewers know that and will expect as much. They want to give credit where credit’s due, so brand early and often. 

The most effective ad of Super Bowl LVII came from Disney, celebrating its 100th anniversary. From start to finish of the 90-second spot, branding is strong, leaning on characters and iconography easily identifiable as Disney properties.

Yes, entertainment brands may have a leg up because they can draw from vast reservoirs of great content, so it’s worth noting how well other top commercials last February, in other types of categories, employed not only this strategy, but others detailed here. The aforementioned M&Ms commercial, at No. 2, was a branding tour de force, and the No. 3 commercial, for T-Mobile, made the brand a core component of the story through prominent use of the T-Mobile logo and making sure that the reworked lyrics to “Summer Nights” from Grease focused entirely on the brand. Also, in playing off the perennial popularity of Grease and a cross-generational starring trio of Donald Faison, Zach Braff, and – of course – John Travolta, the commercial became a runaway hit.

These are just a few of the ways marketers can ensure their dollars are well spent on Super Bowl advertising. With such a massive platform and the opportunity for upwards of 100 million tuned-in US viewers, it’s no time to call an audible. Start planning now! 

Further reading

WARC Best Practice: What we know about Super Bowl advertising
The Feed: Advertising at the Super Bowl gets more complicated
WARC Opinion: Paws for thought: How dogs can lead to more effective advertising
WARC Exclusive: The ads of Super Bowl LVII: What we learned about the art of ad-making
WARC Talks: WARC Talks: 2023 Super Bowl ads – what worked and didn’t

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