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How the Super Bowl Ads Could Have Been Better

Learn how the 2013 super bowl ads could have been better – a case study approach using facial recognition technology to understand emotional responses to advertising.


By most reports the “Crash the Super Bowl” campaign was a great boon for Doritos. Doritos didn’t have to pay for the ideas or their execution. The general public watched the ads millions of times and voted on favorites. The media covered the contest for free.

Yet the top-performing Doritos ad in this year’s Super Bowl, “Fashionista Daddy,” fell short of the stated goal: cracking the USA Today Ad Meter’s Top Three. And the ad itself, while fun, didn’t help the brand as much as it could have. Using contests is a wonderful way to engage the public, but no one should confuse crowdsourcing with genuine market research. Just a little such research would have shown Doritos that a sharp gender difference in the perception of “Fashionista Daddy” would hurt its performance, and not just with USA Today.

The best ads tend to build engagement and enjoyment steadily and peak at the end, leaving viewers with a positive feeling about the brand. That’s what happened with “Brotherhood,” the Clydesdale ad that took top honors from USA Today and others. “Fashionista Daddy,” on the other hand, worked well for women, but confused male viewers when it showed a father dressing in drag. Male engagement recovered, but not enough to overcome the confusion. The second-ranked Doritos ad, “Goat 4 Sale,” suffered a similar drop in engagement when its humor darkened, although it remained popular among females 18-24, who dominate social media.

We learned this well in advance of the game, when we exposed panelists to the five nominated Doritos ads and asked RealEyes to analyze their reactions. RealEyes uses webcams to measure people’s facial expressions in real-time, determining exactly when viewers become angry, surprised, happy and so on as they watch media. We knew that Fashionista Daddy and Goat 4 Sale engaged viewers more than the other Doritos finalists, yet the engagement was much lower – by as much as 20 percentage points – than the best-performing ads RealEyes tested during the 2012 Olympics.

In his bestselling book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman underscored the importance of endings. One group of patients studied had colonoscopies with minimal anesthesia that lasted four to eight minutes, and ended just after the peak moments of pain. A second group underwent the same procedures but for more than 24 minutes each. For the second group, colonoscopies went on long past the peak moment of pain; later moments of pain were much smaller. Although the second group had to endure many more moments of pain, they rated their experience significantly better than the first group did — because they found the decline in pain, the ending, comparatively pleasant. Does that mean we should all request extra-long colonoscopies? No. But it does imply that advertisers should pay close attention to endings.

For all the coverage of which ads “won,” a more important question was ignored: Did the winning ads actually help their brands?”

We ran a test during a recent episode of TV’s most popular sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory.” In this case we weren’t looking so much to rank successful ads as to find out which, if any, were memorable and aided brand recall. By sending surveys to viewers’ mobile phones, we learned that almost 25% of “Big Bang Theory” viewers skipped over ads using a DVR or DVR-like device. Of the 75% who did watch the ads, only 45% found them sufficiently engaging to recall any of them. Only 32% of those who “vaguely found an ad memorable or engaging” were able to recall a specific ad without assistance (e.g., without seeing a list). The good news for advertisers is that of the 32% who did vaguely find some ads engaging, fully three-quarters, 75%, were able to remember the brand name. Most (80%) of those who found an ad memorable or engaging said they would discuss the ad with others. Unengaging ads had no impact on subsequent behavioral change.

Figuring out which ads are engaging, memorable, and assist in brand recall before the expense of a prime-time airing is key — and Internet and mobile research platforms such as mobile testing and facial recognition are now helping advertisers do just that. After all, when you pay $3.8 million to run your ad during the Super Bowl, you want that ad to shine.

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