Purdue expert says Super Bowl ads may not be worth the money

January 23, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — NBC has reported that it sold out advertising time for this year's Super Bowl broadcast before the end of last year. And 30-second spots sold for a record $3.5 million.

Despite the demand, Super Bowl commercials probably aren't worth the premium prices paid to air them, says Richard Feinberg, a consumer psychologist in Purdue University's Department of Consumer Sciences and Retailing.

More than 100 million people are expected to watch the Feb. 5 Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants, which will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. When they aren't watching football, fans will be entertained by commercials for everything from beer to clothing to cars. This year, more ads than normal are expected to be longer than the traditional 30 seconds.

The problem, Feinberg says, is that repetition is the key to sales, and, beyond the Super Bowl, some of the commercials don't get much on-air play to the specific consumer groups who buy the products and services advertised.

"Since repetition to the right consumer is the foundation of purchases, companies just might be better off with 10 $350,000 commercials targeted to specific consumers than one $3.5 million commercial targeted to a lot of consumers, but not necessarily the right ones," he says.

Research suggests that many viewers like the ads as much or more than the game itself, Feinberg says. While the extra attention further enhances the effect of a 30-second commercial, liking an ad doesn't necessarily lead to sales.

A study by Feinberg suggests that even if people watch the commercials, they have a limited impact on longer-term memory. And if consumers cannot remember the companies or the products, the commercials do not lead to sales.

He asked 100 consumers who watched the 2010 Super Bowl to recall details from as many commercials as they could. About 30 percent could accurately recall at least one company with a commercial, but respondents had low confidence in their memory, indicating that they "thought" that the company had a commercial. Few could accurately recall details of the commercials.

Feinberg says the most effective Super Bowl commercials are connected to a range of social media, other advertisements and promotions. The use of animals, humor, special effects and celebrities increase memorability, but that alone does not mean an increase in sales, he says.

"The best commercials tap into helping consumers solve a problem, fill a need, make them look better, feel better or be better. The problem with Super Bowl commercials is that there is so much effort to be creative and cute that the real reason why commercials work is lost and ignored," Feinberg says.

"Super Bowl commercials are celebrated for their creativity and humor, but that doesn't guarantee that consumers will become more aware of a product or make a purchase more likely than if the money had been spent in a less expensive but more effective way."

Writer: Judith Barra Austin, 765-494-2432, jbaustin@purdue.edu

Source: Richard Feinberg, 765-494-8301, xdj1@purdue.edu