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Analysis of Super Bowl Ads

Scientist Lisa Haverty boasts Budweiser's mock wine and cheese party at the top of her list, which judges commercials on a cognitive scale.

Earlier story: Predicting Super Bowl Ad Winners

A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine, but not the message, go down, according to a cognitive scientist who specializes in studying that peculiar American confection, the Super Bowl TV spot.

A collection of screaming critters helped one company’s advertisement become one of the most popular spots aired during this week’s Super Bowl XLII, which featured the second-largest viewing audience in television history.

As a vehicle speeds down a rural road, a number of woodsy creatures, and one distraught passenger, join in a chorus of exaggerated screams as the car bears down on a defenseless, nut-hoarding squirrel, which began the comical shrieking through the aid of computer animation. The ad concludes with the car swerving to miss the critter, thanks to some nifty maneuvering by the driver.

Company execs may rationalize the inflated cost of doing business with Roman numerals — the $2.7 million, 30-second ad was seen by 97.5 million people and placed third in USA Today’s annual Ad Meter poll. But Lisa Haverty questions whether most of the viewers will remember which company sponsored the ad.

“Two months from now, people may think it was an ad for brakes. One friend of mine thought it was a car commercial,” Haverty, a cognitive scientist and ad agency consultant, said of the Bridgestone tires ad. “There may not even be a case of brand fuzziness there; some may not even guess it was in the category of tires.”

Video: Watch the Bridgestone ad

She said this is an example of how a campaign can be entertaining but ineffective if the brand name is simply tacked onto the conclusion of the ad.

What’s more, it shows how the Ad Meter, which measures the likeability of an ad by monitoring how participants feel while watching it, can misrepresent a TV commercial’s success — if success is based on the viewer’s ability to recall the product being hawked. It’s not that “liking” a spot is unimportant, but it’s not sufficient to make the take-away message stick.

Using her own grading system, Haverty produced “The CogScore Top 10 Super Bowl XLII Commercials.” The scoring system grades ads on six cognitive principles — implicit affect, sensory processing, working memories, knowledge representation, elaboration and cognitive engagement. A subjective rating of 1 to 4 is assigned in each category, with the CogScore determined by the average of the six grades.

Topping her list is Budweiser’s “wine and cheese party” ad, featuring a group of men who manage to sneak bottles of their favorite beverage, Bud Light, into an upscale party that doesn’t cater to beer drinkers. Haverty said the use of the product throughout the ad and the overall entertaining concept will help viewers remember the product and the commercial.

Video: Watch the "wine and cheese party" ad

Budweiser’s ad featuring a Clydesdale being trained by a dog earned a high CogScore while also placing No. 1 on the Ad Meter.
Haverty notes that Budweiser has an unfair advantage on Super Bowl Sunday.

“People already have Bud on the brain when they’re watching the Super Bowl because they’re a huge sponsor and everyone is waiting for their ads to appear. And how does someone see a Clydesdale and not think of Bud? Companies like McDonald’s, Coke and Bud are so big that they don’t need to have ads that focus on their products, so they focus on the way the products make you feel.”

Haverty, who holds a Ph.D. in cognitive science from Carnegie Mellon University, will return to University of Tampa this spring to test her results. In 2007, she teamed with Stephen Blessing, an assistant professor in psychology at the university, to analyze the cognitive traits of ads that aired during Super Bowl XL. The work resulted in a paper, “What Did That $2.5 Million Ad Buy Us?”

And neither Ad Meter nor CogScore ultimately measures the bottom line — do sales improve after an ad runs? “Future research,” Haverty and Blessing wrote, “to examine the link between brand memorability and inclusion in purchase ‘consideration sets’ would test whether CogScore is predictive of an ad’s ultimate economic effectiveness.”

Watch all the Super Bowl commercials here