Appearing on the Super Bowl is a big deal. For years the event has carried with it the single biggest television audience of the year along with advertising's heftiest price tag. With such high stakes, one would hope that Super Bowl spots would be polished to have a crisp shine of excellence. Unfortunately, not only do spots fail to hit the mark year after year, some spots are so bad that they even damage the brand.
In 1985, Apple aired its ill-fated "Lemmings" spot. It showed a depressing depiction of PC users walking off a cliff and fell flat. The message was anti-thematic with Apple's inspirational tone the previous year. Apple subsequently dismissed its agency, Chiat Day. A decade later retailer Just for Feet aired a spot that consisted of four individuals hunting a Kenyan runner like he was an animal. This disastrous ad led many to call the brand racist. The advertising was so bad that Just for Feet eventually tried to sue its advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, for creating it.
For the past 10 years we have evaluated Super Bowl ads at the Kellogg School of Management using a panel of students and a tight framework. Over that time we have seen that while some advertisers manage to create advertisements that shine, all too many make others major errors on the Super Bowl stage. At times the advertising isn't just a bad financial investment; it actually does more harm than good. Here are five spots -- sadly there are many more -- that should never have aired.
CareerBuilder (2008): CareerBuilder has often done well on the Super Bowl. Its creative and charming advertising featuring chimps played a major role in building its brand. But, showing even the best can falter; CareerBuilder ran a spot in 2008 that featured a heart bursting out of a person's chest. Then, the heart then scampered across the room. The message was supposed to be inspirational -- follow your heart and find a new job you will love. Unfortunately, the execution disgusted people. People remembered the gruesome scene, not the brand or the product message.
Silestone (2005): Silestone ran a spot on the Super Bowl that showed Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, William "Refrigerator" Perry and Dennis Rodman proclaiming "I am Diana Pearl." This combination of characters was strange for a brand selling countertops and baths. More important, the ad made little sense; it just confused people. Few remembered what the product was and even fewer cared.
U.S. Census (2010): The U.S. government spent more than two million dollars on a Super Bowl spot encouraging people to participate in the census. Unfortunately, the ad made very little sense; viewers were baffled by the execution. They didn't know what they were supposed to do or why they should do it. It was perhaps one of the most disengaging ads this decade and as tax payers we all paid for it.
Groupon (2011): Groupon made its Super Bowl debut with an ad that highlighted a heart-wrenching problem in Tibet and then noted all was not lost; people could get a great deal at Tibetan restaurants with Groupon. The creatives behind the ad were trying to be funny, using dark humor to make a point. They failed to take into account that dark humor is not for everyone. People accused Groupon of making light of a tragic situation. Groupon's CEO eventually apologized for running the ad. The team behind this ad forgot that when you have over 100 million people watching, you have to steer clear of controversial topics.
Homeaway (2011): Showing 2011 was full of missteps, Homeaway drew silence and disgust when they ran a Super Bowl ad showing a baby getting slammed against a plate glass window. The goal was to get attention and be memorable. The ad did get some attention but in a bad way; people accused Homeaway of making light of head injuries, a significant issue for many families. The company CEO issued an apology. This spot had another, perhaps more fundamental problem: showing children getting hurt was not the best way to encourage parents to rent vacation homes.
Every brand on the Super Bowl tries to stand out. Over the past decade, we have seen that in an effort to be creative all too many advertisers forget some basic rules of marketing: deliver a message, keep your target in mind and don't offend people.
Professor Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He teaches several marketing classes, including marketing strategy and bio-medical marketing.
Professor Derek D. Rucker is the Sandy and Morton Goldman Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies in Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he teaches advertising strategy. To learn more about the Kellogg School Super Bowl Ad Review, visit http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/news/superbowl/index.htm.