Super Bowl advertising is known for also being a celebrity showcase. But, on the verge of 2024’s edition of The Big Game, System1’s Jon Evans explains why it’s better for brands to have their spokes characters, not celebrities, take center stage.

This year’s Super Bowl ads are on track to feature even more celebrities than we’ve seen in the game in recent years. 

But Super Bowl advertisers are short-changing their brands by relying so heavily on celebrities, according to new research we’ve conducted at System1 Group. We tested consumers’ emotional reactions to Super Bowl ads of the past four years (2020-2023) and found that commercials featuring brand characters consistently outscored celebrity spots for appeal, brand recognition and commercial impact.

That’s not to say a celebrity-filled spot can’t connect. The ones that do it best, and score the highest, are ones that use the celebrity – whether a sports figure, actor, comedian or singer – doing what they do best. Take the new Super Bowl spot for Michelob ULTRA featuring soccer great Lionel Messi showing off his footwork. Our initial testing of the 60-second version shows it at the top of the early-release ads.

The challenge celebrity-fueled ads face is that there is no connection back to the brand. In fact, I’d argue, most consumers will remember the celebrity, but not remember the brand, product or service they were advertising. 

Not so with brand-owned spokescharacters. Our research shows that ads with brand characters and branded situations, such as Snickers’ “you’re not you when you’re hungry” setups – or what we call fluent devices at System 1 – averaged 3.8-Stars, yet only 10% of Big Game ads in recent years used them. By contrast, over the past four years, 39% of ads featured celebrities and averaged only 2.7-Stars. (System1 scores ads for brand impact on a scale of 1.0 to 5.9 Stars.) 

What’s more, brand characters outscored all other ads by a similar margin. And brand character ads registered greater immediate sales potential than celebrity, music, sports and non-celebrity ads. For example, brand characters averaged a 1.38 Spike Rating, vs.1.24 for celebrity ads, demonstrating a significantly higher propensity to spike sales in the 8-10 weeks post airing.

Despite the big budgets and creative attention dedicated to Super Bowl commercials, we’ve found their brand Fluency – that is, the strength of their brand recognition –is lower than that of typical US ads. Since 2020, the average brand recognition score for Super Bowl ads has dropped from 85 to 83, while the score for general US ads is 85. The issue? Advertisers aren’t introducing their brands early enough or making them central enough to the ads.

The ads that succeed pull right-brain levers by doing the following:

They tell stories. Verbal and non-verbal, the ads take viewers on an emotional journey that ends in peak happiness. Huggies’ 2021 “Welcome to the World, Baby” remains the all-time Super Bowl ad champ, according to our research, because its emotional connection starts on a simple treatment of a big idea – we’ve all been babies – and ends with happiness at a high.

They brand early and often. Viewers know what the ad is for. OREO’s new Super Bowl ad goes so far as to make the cookie the star throughout a comical history play, by focusing on what so many of us love to do with it – twist it open.

They create or extend ownable characters. Nissan and Hellmann’s can rent Brie Larson, but I associate her more with Captain Marvel or her award-winning role in Room. I’ll never make that mistake with the E-Trade baby or the M&M’s spokescandies – both of whom will be back in this year’s Super Bowl.

If I think about what a Super Bowl ad – or any ad, really – is meant to do, it’s to advance a positive relationship with the brand. Over more than 100,000 ad tests, I’ve seen what’s familiar and ownable score higher for fluency – knowing it’s your brand. That goes for signature melodies and repeating situations. 

We’ve all felt the pressure to go spectacular for occasions like the Super Bowl. The thing I’m seeing is that spectacular results in these arenas are coming more reliably from stories people can relate to brands.

Celebrities still outnumber brand characters in Big Game ads, but I see it shifting as more ad folks study ad impact. For the past four years, the average score is brand characters 3.8-Stars, celebrities 2.7-Stars.

I also expect more marketers to pair brand characters with celebrities. Remember the M&Ms Super Bowl ad where Red M&M turns into Danny DeVito? That ad worked magic because it had a great story that brought a belly laugh. That’s ideas, direction, music, effects, and everything else operating at its highest level.