How the Best Super Bowl Ads Influence Culture and Consumer Behavior
Aftab Ahmad, Creative Director | February 07 2024
Every year, millions of Americans gather around their screens to witness the spectacle of the Super Bowl. As an event that is deeply ingrained into our culture, many are not only tuning in for the game, but they are also eagerly anticipating the unveiling of some of the most iconic and memorable advertisements of the year.
With a staggering 150 million viewers, advertisers have a chance to get in front of millions of eyeballs. To put this into perspective, consider that Monday Night Football draws 15 million viewers, 60 Minutes gathers 9.5 million, and even the popular TV show The Voice brings in 6.5 million viewers.
Of course, advertising at the biggest TV of the event of the year comes at a staggering cost. An average ad slot will cost a brand a whopping $6 to $7 million for a mere 30 seconds of airtime.
Beyond buying intention, advertisers realize that the Super Bowl has a profound impact on consumer behavior and brand perception. In a crowded marketplace, it’s an opportunity to vie for consumer loyalty and affection. This is where concepts like costly signaling, the power of a public statement, and cultural imprinting come into play, shaping how we perceive brands and how we perceive ourselves in relation to them.
As we gear up for Super Bowl weekend, let’s unpack the intricate strategies and takeaways from Super Bowl advertising on consumer behavior, brand perception, and the broader cultural landscape.
Influencing Consumer Perceptions -- The Power of Costly Signaling in Super Bowl Ads
In the high-stakes arena of Super Bowl advertising, brands not only vie for attention but also seek to improve consumer sentiment and create a positive public perception. Part of that strategy lies the concept of costly signaling—a mechanism through which brands communicate their credibility and confidence in their products or service.
Consider this, for example: If a brand is prepared to invest millions in a Super Bowl ad, there’s an assumption of quality and confidence in what they offer. It’s a signal to consumers that the brand is willing to spare no expense to showcase its offerings on one of the biggest stages of advertising. In the eyes of the consumer, the high price tag signals to potential buyers that the seller believes their product is of superior quality. Buyers assume that a seller with a lame product wouldn’t risk losing money on an expensive advertisement. This costly signaling creates confidence in consumers and encourages them to try a product.
The Super Bowl is a great example of costly signaling, but its principles can be applied to various forms of media and communication strategies. Cost signaling extends beyond consumer perception. Stakeholders such as business owners, investors, and distributors also interpret these signals as indicators of the brand's strength, stability, and long-term viability. By demonstrating a willingness to invest heavily in Super Bowl advertising, brands not only capture consumer attention but also reassure stakeholders of their market position and competitive advantage.
Cost Signaling: A Takeaway for D2C Brands
Cost signaling serves as a powerful tool for d2c brands to imbue their products with a sense of quality and authenticity. Even without the Super Bowl-sized budgets, direct-to-consumer brands can effectively apply cost signaling to enhance their brand perception.
For example, brands can focus on instilling confidence in consumers by strategically leveraging advertising channels that convey a sense of exclusivity, quality, or high perceived value. This might include longer-format 90-second TV ads, double-page magazine spreads, or a high-profile online placement. It might be a billboard or a banner at a high-profile sporting event. Selecting media channels that convey a sense of expense will signal to the public the brand has genuine faith in their products.
The Power of Public Statements in Super Bowl Settings
You may not realize it, but saying something in public has a very different effect than saying it in private.
Richard Shotton, a behavioral science author and speaker, proved this theory to be true. Shotton and his team ran a study where he asked politicians to share what they were going to do about speeding violations, in two very different settings.
In one scenario in a private one-on-one setting, the politicians shared they were going to spend 10% more on speed counters in the next twelve months. In a different scenario, Shotton told the participants that politicians also made the statement in a public setting with 100 people. 40% of the participants believed the politician was lying in the one-on-one setting, while only 20% of people thought the politician was lying in the public scenario.
While participants were skeptical of the politician’s statements made in a one-on-one setting, in the group setting, people assumed that the politician had more to risk. The politician has a self-interest to uphold his reputation by following through with the promises he makes. You stand greater reputational risk when making a statement in public, rather than private.
Studies like this show that making public statements (like those in Super Bowl ads) carry greater credibility and believability than private one-on-one assurances. The more public you make a statement, the more believable it will be. Part of the reason is that there is more of a reputational risk associated with breaking promises, thereby incentivizing brands (and politicians) to uphold their commitments and maintain consumer trust.
The Power of Public Statements: A Takeaway for D2C Brands
While the Super Bowl is the ultimate platform for brands to engage in public statements, most direct-to-consumer brands can’t invest millions of dollars into a Super Bowl ad.
A great takeaway from the power of public statements for direct-to-consumer and e-commerce brands is to broadcast their message loud and clear to a broad audience through channels like billboards and TV, rather than 1-1 media like direct mail, e-mail, or a digital banner. You can also apply this theory in your creative and marketing messages; you can tell people you made a promise or give an example of where you’ve applied it before.
By investing in broad media like broadcast, and making a public statement, brands signal their confidence in their product, dedication to consumer satisfaction, and brand excellence.
Super Bowl Ads and Cultural Imprinting
Aside from cost signaling and the power of public statements, Super Bowl ads serve as a prime territory for brands to engage in cultural imprinting.
Cultural imprinting is a process by which advertising campaigns shape the broader cultural meanings associated with their products or services.
Super Bowl ads have a massive reach and iconic status, so these ads have the unique ability to transcend past just marketing messages. They can become deeply ingrained in our culture, resonating with audiences long after they air. Whether it’s through humor or emotion, they have the power to leave a lasting impression.
Ads create the impression that everyone else has made the association between a product and a context. Therefore, it’s assumed that we make rational decisions by fitting into how other people may perceive what we buy. This largely explains why common consumer goods (highly visible purchases by others) are more effectively advertised at large scale (like the Super Bowl watched by 150MM people).
Cultural imprinting is important to products other people can see broadly. For example, bed sheets cannot be advertised because more people do not have access to seeing your bed sheets so there is no shared cultural context on which to sway your decisions.
Instead, cultural imprinting applies to brands that you carry out into the world – handbags, clothing, your drink of choice at a party, the shoes you wear, the car you drive, etc. What type of car you drive says “something” about you. What type of beer, whether it’s Corona, Heineken, or Budweiser, says “something” about you. However, you’re not in control of that message. It just sits there, out on the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an advertising campaign.
Cultural Imprinting: A Takeaway for D2C Brands
With the rise of personalized digital ads, it’s important to note that brands need to be careful with overusing personalization. For example, Corona could, theoretically, create five different ads tailored to five different individuals. It could be marketed as sophisticated to one person and easy-going to another. These mixed messages can get lost in translation, and at the end of the day, the public no longer understands who Corona is and what it stands for.
A consistent message is important for brand building and messaging. This connective tissue and cohesive messaging strategy, applied to different media, is important for brand building and consumer perception.
The Takeaway: Influencing Consumer Perceptions through Super Bowl Commercials
It’s no surprise that commercials have become a significant part of the Super Bowl experience. There’s a different expectation of commercials during a Super Bowl game, compared to commercials during a regular football game. Viewers anticipate that the commercials will be entertaining and engaging, prompting advertisers to make sure their commercial is memorable and stands out. They generate buzz and spark conversations among viewers, and when done correctly, they can positively impact consumer perception and buying intentions.
With a hefty budget, brands like Oreo, Budweiser, Hellmann’s, and DoorDash have already committed to a 2024 spot, releasing teasers of their ads on social media. Others are opting to advertise around the Super Bowl with a flurry of digital ad spots. For example, That same $7M for a TV commercial could get a brand 2.8 million clicks on TikTok’s in-feed ads or 140 million impressions on a streaming ad.
Fortunately, you don’t need a hefty budget to leverage these behavioral science concepts. Brands can pick up some of the concepts like cost signaling, the power of a public statement, and cultural imprinting to shape consumer perceptions, influence consumer behavior, and build authentic connects with their audience.
Interested in learning more about the Super Bowl, Ads, and Return on Investment? Watch our latest Consumer Behavior Lab Podcast with MichaelAaron Flicker and Richard Shotton, two entrepreneurs and thought leaders committed to applying behavior science to marketing and advertising.