What makes a great Super Bowl ad? Sexy celebrities? A great soundtrack? Slapstick humor? Puppies?
The answer, according to Johns Hopkins University professor Keith A. Quesenberry, is a good story.
Quesenberry published a study that looked at more than 100 Super Bowl ads and determined that those that told a complete story — one with a beginning, middle and end, just as your English teacher taught you — received the highest ratings from viewers.
"You can tell a complete story in 30 seconds," said Quesenberry, who teaches advertising and marketing. "The best ads tell a story that you can relate to — and the product is an integral part of the story."
Super Bowl ads create as much — or more — excitement as the big game. With advertisers paying $4.5 million for 30 seconds of air time, it's imperative that the ads grab viewers, and have long half-lives on social media.
But advertisers don't necessarily know what makes an ad a hit, said Quesenberry, a former agency creative director.
Quesenberry predicts that one of this year's top ads will be a spot for Carnival Cruise Lines. A woman races away from the stresses of ordinary life — the dentist, an ornery boss, road construction — which follow her until she leaps onto a waiting cruise ship.
Bud Light's ad depicting a man running through — and winning — a life-size game of Pac Man after accepting a challenge on a beer bottle will also likely do well, said Quesenberry.
So will an ad for newcomer Mophie, which shows the disastrous consequences of God's cellphone running out of juice.
Budweiser's spot, "Lost Puppy," which tells the story of Clydesdale horses rescuing a young dog from a wolf, should also generate buzz, Quesenberry said.
That ad reprises the characters from last year's tear-jerker hit, which showed the puppy escaping from its adopted owners to return to its beloved ponies.
Last year's Budweiser ad closely followed Quesenberry's model, which identifies five parts of story: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action and conclusion. It introduced characters and presented them with a challenge — the separation. In the climatic scene, the puppy runs through a rain storm to reach the horse. The puppy's new owner comes back to the farm and she and the previous owner watch the puppy and the horse play together.
To study the ads, Quesenberry and Shippensburg University professor Michael K. Coolsen assigned each ad a score from zero to five based on the number of story elements shown. Then they compared the scores to ratings the ads had received from consumer polls.
The results were striking: The highest-rated ads also had the largest number of story elements. The study was published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice last fall.
The most-talked-about Super Bowl ads hew to Quesenberry's formula. Apple's Orwellian 1984 commercial introducing the Macintosh computer, considered the first blockbuster Super Bowl ad, told a story. So does a charmer from 2011 that shows a young would-be Darth Vader exhibiting mind control powers — thanks to his dad's use of a Volkswagen's remote-start button.
John Patterson, executive creative director at local marketing firm MGH, said he uses a different test to determine if an ad is a success.
"My formula for a winning Super Bowl ad is the same as my formula for any ad," he said. "Something has to hit you in the gut, whether it's heartwarming or hilarious."
Ultimately, a successful ad sells a product, Patterson said. And the ads that win the most votes do not necessarily lead to the most sales.
"We don't look at academic studies, we look at sales reports," he said. "Your client calls you the next day or the next week or next month and tells you how you're doing."
Quesenberry said it's still too early to determine the breakaway star of this year's crop of ads because not all the ads have been released in their entirety.
But we do know that fatherhood will be a major theme in this year, with both Dove and Nissan releasing ads and social media campaigns around dads. Those ads have the potential to be winners — as long as they focus on stories, and not just montages of dad shots, he said.
Quesenberry said the NFL's public service message about domestic violence depicts an interesting twist on his formula. The spot surveys a home that has been the scene of violence, while the tape of a 911 call plays. Then the spot abruptly ends.
It's an incomplete story, Quesenberry says. But that's not a bad thing in this case. He sees it as an invitation for viewers to write their own conclusion to the scene — one that prevents further violence.