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Better Super Bowl Makes for Better Ads

• February 03, 2012 • 9:15 AM

A lot of people say they watch the Super Bowl mostly for the ads. But it turns out a good game surrounding those ads makes them seem better.

A curious thing sometimes happens when we watch a violent movie, or a thrilling TV show, or when we listen to, say, Al Green. Afterward, we take that aggression or excitement that we’ve just built up and apply it to whatever’s at hand. Academics have a name for this phenomenon: excitation transfer theory.

You might want to remember this as you’re watching some entertainment ripe for serious suspense this Sunday — the Super Bowl.

“As you’re watching a suspenseful game, there’s a certain level of arousal that develops,” said Colleen Bee, an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University. This can, by the way, take on both psychological and physiological forms. “As this excitation is building throughout an exciting game, it transfers to things in the immediate environment.”

Like, for instance, beer ads.

Bee and colleague Robert Madrigal have conducted a new study of excitation transfer theory in the sports marketing realm, and their findings illuminate how many of us will be affected by the Big Game this weekend — and what that should mean for companies spending as much as $3.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial spot.

The authors, whose research will appear in a forthcoming Journal of Advertising, found that viewers feel more positively about ads (and the brands and products contained in them) when they air in the immediate aftermath of a really great game. This means that if the Giants and Patriots go down to the wire on Sunday, the real winner may be the car ad that comes right afterward.

That high many of us experience from watching a nail-biter — never a given for Super Bowls — follows you straight into the commercial break. And the trick really works if the ad itself is suspenseful, too.

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Bee and Madrigal studied this by condensing their own mini college basketball games from real footage, and interspersing them with actual ads from TV. The games, collapsed into two four-minute halves, were shown to 112 undergraduates at Oregon State (you can’t, it turns out, get undergraduates to sit for a full two-hour basketball game for science, even if it is for credit). The researchers showed four different types of games: a suspenseful loss and a suspenseful win for the viewer, and a less suspenseful alternative pair. “A complete blowout,” Bee clarified.

At “halftime” and at the end of each game, subjects were also shown commercials, two of which were themselves designed with suspenseful plotlines, and two that weren’t. In the suspenseful Nike ad — dramatically dubbed “Good vs. Evil” — some wholesome soccer players take on a team of demons, music soars, and things get pretty exciting. In another ad, for Virgin Atlantic, it is in doubt until the end of the spot if a man quietly sitting on a city bench will be hit from above by a falling object. (Bee and Madrigal make no comment on whether these are effective ads — just exciting, suspenseful ones. Other academics, of course, are willing to stick their necks out on an ad’s effectiveness.)

The other ads were for the cold medicine Sudafed and a bladder control product.

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“As you can image, they were very informative,” Bee said. “The Sudafed one had something about explaining the benefits of Sudafed for cold and allergies, and then there was someone with a red nose. It was really not that exciting. It wasn’t one of the cold medicine ads that had Peyton Manning in it or Drew Brees.”

After pairing all of the game scenarios against all of the ads (each subject watched only one mini-game), the viewers were then asked in an online survey how they felt about the advertising. The ads — particularly the suspenseful ones — that were shown at the conclusion of the close games were viewed more favorably than both the ads shown at the end of the blowouts, and those shown in the middle of any type of game.

One other finding here was particularly surprising.

“We actually expected, based on theory, that the outcome, whether your team won or lost, might affect advertising,” Bee said. “In fact, we found that it didn’t.”

This is good news for advertisers who don’t have to worry about half of their potential customers forever associating Sudafed with that awful last-minute loss to the New York Giants (or the Pats). For advertising, a good game matters. Who wins doesn’t.

During the Super Bowl, there is typically a premium placed on the ads aired near the beginning of the game, because advertisers assume many of us won’t stick out the whole thing. But this research suggests that, in the event of a close contest, the spot with the real premium is the one that airs right after the game ends.

This finding presents more of a quandary to advertisers than a new sure-fire rulebook for winning the advertising game. So here’s a new question for Monday-morning quarterbacks: Should you go for the first-quarter ad — when you’re likely to have the most viewers tuning in — or gamble on the end of the fourth quarter and hope a close game hands you scads of excited viewers primed to transfer all that energy to your brand?

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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