What Makes For The Best Super Bowl Ads? Here's What Our Research Uncovered

I never imagined I'd get a chance to shoot a spot like this and explore what makes for the best Super Bowl ads.

Just over 5 years ago we got a call from Pete Radovich asking if we'd be interested in doing a project with CBS on the Army-Navy football rivalry. We were, and that film, A Game of Honor, went on to win 3 Emmys.

More than any awards though, it began our relationship with Pete and CBS. So this year, as the Super Bowl rolled around and it was a CBS broadcast (which they get every 3 years), we got the call to help on a couple projects.

One of them was the open to the game. Pete had this awesome idea of getting the biggest sports and Hollywood icons, sitting them down, and asking them about their favorite Super Bowl memories. And then at a critical point in the story Ron Howard, who within the storyline is the director of piece, interrupts Kevin Bacon and tells him this just isn't feeling right and they need to go bigger.

Joyce and I were asked to shoot the scene where Ron Howard interrupts Kevin Bacon, a huge turning point in the piece. And so there I was, on set with my Red Epic, Joyce getting a cameo in a Super Bowl spot, and I have 3 seconds to direct Ron (Oscar-Award-winning) Howard for a quick shot near the end.


Make no mistake, Pete was directing this piece. It was simply a quick pick-up shot near the end and I got to step in and shoot Ron while directing him. What an incredible moment and opportunity. He was so incredibly focused and committed to helping out in any way he could.

This spot had dozens of the biggest sports and Hollywood names along with what must have been a pretty sizable budget to pull it all off. And all of this just to open the Super Bowl for a couple minutes of air time.

And then you hear about the advertising rates for a 30 second spot– $166,666 per second, or $5 million for a 30-second spot.

With so much money going into one ad, and so many eyeballs sure to see it, it made us wonder what factors come together to make the best ads? In other words, when the sky is the limit, how do you produce something that will connect and get shared?

We dug through tons of research to figure it out. What makes for the best Super Bowl ads? Here's what we found.

Before I dive into what we found you may be wondering how one tells which ads are the best. For that, there are a couple metrics we looked at. First and foremost is USA Today's Ad Meter, which gathers hundreds of volunteers every year and uses handheld meters to have them rate their enjoyment while they watch each ad shown during the game.

There are also sites like SpotBowl.com which exist just to have visitors rate their favorite Super Bowl spots.

So it's not all that hard to get a few different metrics that show you just how 'good' a Super Bowl ad is. The trick now is to try and find patterns among the best ones.

In 2014, one study looked at 108 Super Bowl ads from 2010 and 2011 to see how much story structure mattered.

They took these 108 ads and then broke down the structure of the story. For this particular study, the researchers used Freytag's Pyramid, a 5-act model of story structure. It's worth noting that Freytag's model came about in 1863 and is easily related to the more modern 3-act structure with a beginning, middle, and ending that is accompanied with rising and falling action. At the onset of their research they were asking the question:

"Do well-developed stories increase the favorability more than less developed stories?"

To answer that question they had multiple researchers break down the story structure (or lack thereof) for all 108 ads. They were scored as having anywhere from 1 to 5 acts, with a 5-act story being much fuller and more developed. Then they looked at how the number of acts within the ad correlated to the favorability ratings.

Here's the crazy part:

Super Bowl ads with a stronger story structure had a clear and consistent increase in their favorability.

Here are their exact results:

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 10.33.40 PM

So now let's flash-forward to 2016 and look at the top ad from this years Super Bowl. Taking top honors is Hyundai's First Date spot with nearly 14 million views a day after the Super Bowl and the highest ranking according to USA Today.

In the spot, Kevin Hart plays an overly protective dad who tracks his daughters first date using a GPS app.

As you watch the ad, consider the story's structure. Even without going super deep into story, think about the plot in terms of beginning, middle, and ending all of which is driven by conflict.

The 2016 top Super Bowl ad, Hyundai’s First Date used solid story structure to drive connection and views.

Let's just take a moment and break this down for a second:

  • Beginning -> The boyfriend shows up for the first date to the house while Dad seems overly involved, and then offers them his car. At 0:17, just over 25% of the way in, we see the father's "game face." This is the conflict, we know something is up, and that serves as the transition into the next part of the story.
  • Middle ->  We see that the father has a car-finder app which we assume is to track the car. As his daughter goes through her night—to the movies and then to the carnival—Dad pops up in the background with an intimidating look only the boyfriend can see. At 0:43 we reach the crescendo when the couple go to some remote lookout and he leans in for a kiss. This is where Dad swoops in on a helicopter (no doubt a reference to the term 'helicopter parent') and says, "You're messing with the wrong daddy!" That's our transition into the ending of the story.
  • Ending -> The boyfriend has had enough and says he needs to take his girlfriend home. He drops her off at home (where Dad is waiting) and as the boyfriend leaves we hear a Hyundai slogan about their car-finder feature and dad asks "What did you do tonight?"

And here again we see that a solid story structure with a conflict along with a clear beginning, middle, and ending, is key to a winning Super Bowl ad.

If you're hoping to apply these findings into your own commercial work you may be wondering how you can embrace story inside a 30- or 60-second spot. The reality is, it certainly isn't easy. But here is a huge thing to keep in mind.

In commercials, simple storylines with a strong emotional connection do the best.

And we can back that up with some solid research. In Nielsen's Global Trust in Advertising Survey they asked 30,00 online consumers which advertising themes were most impactful. In reporting on their findings here is what they had to say:

“Best-in-class ads share several characteristics: they’re relatable, follow an upbeat and simple storyline, use novel and striking imagery and make an emotional connection,” Randall Beard, president, Nielsen Expanded Verticals.

Want more proof? You've probably already seen this famous Super Bowl ad from 2011 called The Force. Take a look again but this time keep in mind the key themes that keep coming up across all of this research. The best ads have a strong story structure (conflict with a clear beginning, middle, and ending), they're not overly complex, and they create an emotional connection.

And for the record, The Force is at 62 million views and is the most shared Super Bowl ad of all time.

Here's the reality–the best ads embrace a solid story structure, they focus on simple storylines, and they form an emotional connection.

The best Super Bowl ads of all time develop a strong, yet simple, story. Check out @stillmotion’s breakdown of the best ads.

What about you? Which ad stood out to you most for the 2016 Super Bowl? Share either the one you loved or hated the most down below.

ps– if you're curious and want to see that other piece we helped on, the story of Zae Dobson, you can check it out here.

Quesenberry, Keith A, and Michael K. Coolsen. "What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super? Five-Act Dramatic Form Affects Consumer Super Bowl Advertising Ratings." The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice. 22.4 (2014): 437-454. Print.