How to write a Superbowl ad

(Hey everybody, it’s super bowl time! so i’m reposting this from 2008. It ran as an article in Adweek too. I devoted a fair few years to working on spots for the super bowl. I can’t believe how much time I spent thinking of beer ads for THE BIG GAME. now, looking back at it, it seems crazy.)

It’s super bowl time.  All across the land, the top commercial film directors are turning up their noses and/or taking their pick of the sixty odd scripts currently in production in anticipation of the big game.  the viceroy hotel in santa monica is about to get very busy.

the thing about the superbowl is that the viewing situation is unique.  EVERYONE is watching. and it’s the one time of the year that everyone actually looks forward to watching commercials.  so the pressure is on. you’d better be good.

obviously there can be no rules in creativity so these are just things we’ve learned over the years creating superbowl ads. being on “the big game” is exciting. knowing that a hundred million people will see your work is a great incentive to get it right.

so here goes…

1.   Spots that hinge on a reveal or a rugpull can be dangerous. because only one moment of the ad will be funny. Unless the reveal involves something can’t-miss.  like a t-shirt wearing chimp dancing on a garbage can…for a bank.  that’s good times.  Otherwise you ideally need something that starts big and gets bigger.

2. So, be funny or really compelling in some way all the way through. the reason banking on a single gag is a risk is that you’re essentially asking people to judge your humor. you’re asking them to ask themselves if what they just saw was funny. and that invites potential failure. ideally you just confidently overwhelm the audience. tickle them. be fresh but familiar. but don’t beg them to laugh.

3.  Animals work. Dogs work especially.  Not my preference creatively, but spots that have dogs in them score higher in the USA Today popularity poll.  Kittens work too. but not badgers i’m guessing. yet skunks are a slapstick comedy goldmine. and of course our mini-us friends the apes are hairy hilarities. solidly reliable. and they can be trained to do whatever your idea needs.

4.  The superbowl is lowest common denominator time.   Just a statistical fact.  Grandma and your girlfriend/boyfriend and your teenage male cousin are watching.  What will all of them like? The best superbowl spots have universal appeal.

5.  Go with the flow.  Don’t listen to the “hey, everyone else is being funny, let’s not be” voice in your head.  people are watching the superbowl to have a good time.  not to be bummed out or made think too hard.

here’s something we did a few years back. this was the toughest superbowl ad i ever did. we had to discourage beer drinking on the superbowl. for a client that sold beer. our solution was to create a commercial that discouraged drinking and driving but felt like a beer spot. trust me, that wasn’t easy.

a german intern came up with the original germ of this idea. and the spot was, to my great surprise, the thirteenth most popular spot of the game. this spot suffers from several executional flaws which still make me cringe. so i hesitate to show it to you. it’s more to illustrate the point. and hey, it was #13 on the USA Today poll. So it was a hit!

6. Use the unique viewing environment. People gather in crowds to watch the game. so ideally your spot will literally be a crowd-pleaser. and will unite viewers in agreement that “yeah, that was funny!”.

7. The audience will have had a few beers, it’s good to assume. so their ability to process information and follow plotlines might be impaired. So don’t have too many gear changes in your commercial.

8. Where your spot runs in the game matters. you probably have no control over that. and if the game is a blow out and your spot runs in the fourth quarter it will be an uphill battle to get the viewers’ attention. the upside is if your spot is really great it won’t have to compete with a dramatic game. and so it can really stand out.

9. Keep it simple. Commercials that consist of just one thing are easier to process and follow and remember. The USA Today poll winners tend to be texture-free and almost childishly simple. Again, not our personal creative preference. But a fact nonetheless. maybe that’s why we never scored higher than #4 on the poll…. boohoohoo! :-(

Here is that spot. Guess what, it featured a talking dog! This spot scored highest in the pretesting so it was actually the first spot to air within the game. The pole position of superbowl advertising.

It got beaten by spots featuring dogs lighting their farts and kicking each other in the nuts. Kidding!

10. The USA Today superbowl ad popularity poll works like this. A random sample of the population (every race, gender and age) is gathered to watch the game. they are given clickers that they click as they watch the spots that run in the game. the more they like what they see the more they click. i think that’s one reason for the preponderance of animal spots. everyone likes cute dogs. so granny and young man click furiously from the opening frame when they see the cute animal behaving like a human. they don’t click furiously when they just see a human acting like a human. regardless of what you may think of the USA today poll, i can guarantee your client will care about how well their spot fares in it.

11. Be cool. i know there’s a lot at stake and most people are lucky if they get to write one superbowl spot in their careers but the mood on set and in the edit suite will show up on screen. if fun isn’t had in the process the commercial itself will suffer. my personal favorite superbowl ad that i wrote was done in an almost casual manner. it was a slender idea made great by performance, direction and editing more than writing. the dialogue actually came from the first words the actor playing the texan said to me upon meeting. he really was like that. so i figured that would be funnier than anything i could think of. and the director had the idea of just “doing the three thing”. repeating something three times till it becomes absurd.

plus, we had a lot of creative freedom. the finished spot differed wildly from the original script. which never made me laugh. so we changed it. people really seemed to like this one. they would smile when remembering it. it was just silly fun. great fun to shoot. i was kind of pleasantly surprised by how well it played in the game. we had the good fortune to have this spot be the first ad to run after U2 had just killed it in the half-time show. so everyone was in a good mood. and the game was still wide open. see point 8 above. you can’t beat good timing.

and it was the seventh most popular spot in the game according to the aforementioned USA Today poll. not that anyone cared about that. oh yes they did!

12. Don’t forget to write a good ad for the product you’re advertising. A lot of superbowl ads seem to be over-anxious to entertain. and forget to pack the sell. but remember that part of what consumers judge as a good ad is how relevant to the brand it is. how well does it sell what’s being advertised? chances are your brand already has a place in people’s heads. so they can intuitively recognize what constitutes a good ad based on previous knowledge.

just showing dancing animals won’t distinguish you. Budweiser and Pepsi can do that because they really don’t have anything to say. if anything they’re over-familiar to viewers. the overarching characteristic of the superbowl is the bigness of it. so be big. but that doesn’t necessarily mean being funny. you can be entertaining without simply being funny. masterlock built their brand running this brilliant spot every year on the game. all their media budget, gone in thirty seconds. but a great use of it.

NB: the above are just guidelines based on experience. there will always be brilliant exceptions. in fact the best ones ignore the guidelines. but they’re trickier to sell. if i had my way every superbowl spot would be wall-to-wall kittens. nothing but kittens. kittens everywhere!

9 responses to “How to write a Superbowl ad

  1. Did advertising on the super bowl burst the internet bubble or merely clue stock analysts into the absurd notion of creating a brand before you create a product?
    I saw the 1985 Super Bowl in Washington DC during inaugural weekend with the Tuesday Team. The Apple “Lemmings” spot came on at one point and silenced the room. At its conclusion, one of the TT members said: “Thank God it’s awful. I was worried they’d do another 1984 commercial.” That will always be for me the perfect demo of Schadenfreude.

    • i remember that bubble era. the worst part was they all had these really dumb ads for brands nobody had ever heard of. it was disorienting.

      that’s very funny about the TT reaction to lemmings. i know that feeling!

  2. This is very timeless Vinny. One thing I loved is your comment about Brands that we are over familiar with. I kind of feel their spots are for a completely different purpose than the rest. 1] They don’t need to sell 2] They don’t need to enlighten us 3] They seem to be expected (big beer and soda brands are expected to have commercials) 4] Lastly they are expected to entertain, not to sell. But almost as ‘Thanks for making us such a big ass brand and putting up with our non-stop overbearing advertising presence the rest of the year”

  3. what executional flaws?
    just curious.

    • riki, i was never happy with the staging of the spot. and the music. the spot felt a little too stiff to me. i thought it could have been a bit more funky and joyous. and therefore a bit more enjoybable to watch. we could have cracked the top ten dammit!

  4. Never realised that you guys did the designated driver ad Vinny. I actually really liked it, but it took me a few viewings. Hadn’t seen the other Bud ad either (How You Doing?) – sweet. Barman’s expression makes it for me.

    I always wanna watch the Superbowl, but it’s on at Stupid O’Clock over here and lasts pretty much until you have to wake up for work.

  5. yes paul. that was me in my former life. i should point out that the star of that ad is comedian Cedric The Entertainer, in case anyone didn’t know. he was under contract to Bud Light at the time. and this was part of his contract. and another wrinkle we had to contend with. funny thing: Cedric wears what Cedric wants to wear in your spot. interesting choices cedric!

    the super bowl can be fun viewing. not a big american football fan myself to be honest. i could barely be bothered to tune in when i had an ad in it.

  6. Pingback: Because chimps with lasers never fail. | BFG Blog

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