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The Best and Worst Super Bowl Ads of All Time

February 5, 2017, 1:00 PM UTC

This year, companies will spend roughly $5 million per 30 seconds for a televised ad during the Super Bowl. This is a notable sum, even for the biggest advertisers. But what makes an ad a hit? Here’s a look at the best and worst ads over the years, and what made them a hit with viewers:

They’re creative and one-of-a-kind

The best ads are creative enough to be distinct and attention-grabbing. For example, consider Tide’s Miracle Stain Super Bowl Ad from 2013, which featured a “miracle stain” that appeared on a San Francisco 49er fan’s jersey. The stain had the likeness of the beloved Joe Montana, which led viewers to a marvelous pilgrimage until the wife — a Baltimore Ravens fan — washed away the stain. Not only was it an attention-getting ad, it was a great story that highlighted the two teams actually playing in the game.

A great Super Bowl spot is an ad that people talk about during and after the Super Bowl. The best ads even become part of popular culture and live for years beyond their release.

Strategy matters

It isn’t enough to be funny or memorable. A truly successful Super Bowl ad should help build a brand and drive sales.For this to happen, the advertiser needs to have a clear sense of the target audience and deliver a compelling benefit. What’s more, the spot needs give viewers a clear reason to purchase a particular product.

One ad that did this well was VW’s 2014 Super Bowl ad, where a father tells his daughter that every time a VW hits 100,000 miles, a German engineer gets his wings, noting that with 100,000 vehicles, the European automaker has more vehicles on the road than any other brand. This message suggested that the car was reliable and gave consumers a compelling reason to buy.

Channels matter

Increasingly, it is more difficult to think of purchasing a Super Bowl ad purely based on the 30 or 60 seconds the spot will be shown on television. Rather, brands have to think about how they can use the spot as a nucleolus for a larger campaign.

For some brands, this entails aggressive digital and social media buying before, during, and after the game. For other brands, this could entail the development of a campaign that may span year round.

During the 2016 Super Bowl, Honda used the big game to introduce its redesigned Ridgeline pickup truck amid a flock of singing sheep, which kicked off a full year of marketing support for the new vehicle. The ad spawned a social media buzz, as many viewers and consumers talked about the commercial.

The key is that when purchasing a Super Bowl spot, brands have to consider how to take advantage of the various media platforms to build and maintain momentum around a Super Bowl spot.

Audience matters

Finally, it is important to remember that a Super Bowl spot has the potential to reach more than 100 million consumers. Having such a large and broad audience means that brands should be all the more careful with their execution.

An offensive Super Bowl spot becomes more than a waste of the media buy; it can actually damage a brand’s value and cost them far more than the media buy. In recent years, various brands, such as Groupon and Nationwide, have aired content that required apologizing for their content and scrapping whatever plans they may have had to continue to use that content. This does not mean brands should forsake creativity—see our first point—but most brands have to strive for creative content that resonates, or at least doesn’t offend, a broad audience.

It is a difficult balance for Super Bowl advertisers: be different and unique but in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.

Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He teaches several marketing classes, including marketing strategy and bio-medical marketing. Derek D. Rucker is the Sandy and Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at Kellogg School of Management, where he teaches advertising strategy. They co-lead the Kellogg School Super Bowl Ad Review.