Why celebrity endorsement may not pay off the multimillion dollar Super Bowl advertising investment

The list of celebrities involved in Super Bowl advertising is massive. From the early days of Joe Namath, Farah Fawcett, Alan Alda and Bill Bixby to today’s new golden age of celebrity endorsers — including this year’s slate of ads featuring the likes of Christopher Walken, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Hart and William Dafoe — the use of celebrities isn’t likely going anywhere soon. But research has pointed to the fact that getting a big name for the big game may not necessarily pay off for brands.

Dr. Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist at Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, has been on the forefront of how celebrities do (or don’t) actually enhance a brand’s presence and, specifically, how their contributions affect Super Bowl ads. In its simplest form, he noted, there are no guarantees that celebrities have an impact. Biometric data, from the 2008 to 2015 Super Bowl ads, shows that only 33 per cent of ads that feature celebrities (either on-screen or in voiceovers) earn above-average engagement scores.

The data is gleaned by focusing on four “channels” of biologically relevant information: 1) skin conductance, which are the electrical impulses measured in the fingertips that are directly transmitted from the emotion centers of the brain, 2) heart rate and heart rate fluctuations, 3) respiration and breathing patterns and 4) accelerometers which monitor movement and if someone leans forward while watching an ad.

“Our conscious awareness is only part of what the brain is doing at any given time,” noted Marci, who received his M.D., with honors at Harvard Medical School, and earlier degrees at Oxford University and Columbia University. “All of the things that we think are important in our daily lives is only a small portion of what’s happening — a ton of processing is going on below our conscious awareness.”

The importance of this data, the continued evolution of neuroscience, and understanding consumer emotion is becoming more prevalent for brands, according to Marci.

“When I started in this field in 2006, we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of emotion,” said Marci. “The industry has come around and I would say that it’s fundamentally and universally accepted. It also is clear that it helps brands determine how to break through the clutter of the modern media landscape.”

Creative work that seems to resonate the most, emotionally, for the audience is a seemingly simple formula that has worked for years.

“There are some tried and true ways to reach people emotionally,” said Marci. “First of all, you have to tell a story — with a beginning, middle and end — that takes people on a journey. Secondly, the characters have to be relatable in some way. Celebrities can be relatable because of their recognition but they can sometimes be too far removed from the brand or people they’re trying to connect with in the first place.”

Two prime examples of a celebrity stealing a brand’s “thunder” are SodaStream’s 2013 Super Bowl spot with Scarlett Johansson and 2015’s Game of War ad starring Kate Upton. In the study, both were among the lowest scores in the study and it is in large part because people were focusing on the actors and not the product.

On the SodaStream example, Marci discussed the initial spike in interest, that waned quickly. “That spot got out of the blocks well then, all of a sudden, it turned into an attempt to make fun of selling soda and it fell flat on the engagement meter.”

Marci also points out that ads that were either relevant to the game or had strong humor and benefits scored high. Snickers’ wildly successful 2010 ad with Betty White was a prime example of the former and Best Buy’s 2013 Super Bowl spot with Amy Poehler was the best example of the latter.

“The Best Buy ad worked because it had a relatable celebrity (in Poehler), humor and real benefits,” said Marci. “They were able to draw attention to the screen, maintain it with humor and have the celebrity focus her attention and interest on the advertisers and the benefits to the consumer.”

Other ads that performed well on engagement, and were personal favorites of Marci included 2011’s Chrysler ad, featuring Eminem and 2013’s Dodge (for the Ram Trucks brand) spot that used legendary broadcaster, Paul Harvey’s monologue. Each was a prime example celebrities who are good storytellers, with a good story to tell.

But one other Super Bowl spot, with the same structure, and without a bankable name celebrity, stood out even more.

My favorite Super Ad is Google’s ‘Parisian Love,’ said Marci. “If you think about that ad, in sixty-seconds, through the actual product, you go on this incredible journey of a single young man who goes off to France to study abroad, falls in love, woos a woman, flies back, proposes, gets married and has a baby. All in sixty-seconds.”

As it relates to sales, the neuroscience data has proven to be a good indicator of success. Correlated with online views and comments, the biometric science can predict end market behavior effectively. Marci admits that the Super Bowl is as much a branding event as a vehicle for driving sales — but cautions brands who feel as though the celebrity route is a quick route to exposure and success.

“Evidence suggests that success relies on how various elements are rendered and mixed together. Spending a great deal of money for a celebrity to appear in an ad is no more likely to yield a positive return than an ad without one.”

Check out this year's crop of adverts at The Drum's dedicated Super Bowl section.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.