Super Bowl ads can 'make or break your brand,' Behrend professor says

ERIE, Pa. — Remember the puppy-monkey-baby? Mountain Dew used it to introduce Kickstart, the Dew-and-juice breakfast drink, during Super Bowl 50. That was in 2016.

The commercial creeped people out. It abandoned the Super Bowl ad landmarks — burgers, beers, bikinis and big trucks — and went instead with shock: a “Wizard of Oz” monkey on a Ralph Steadman bender.

It got us talking, however. In the commercial world, that’s a success, says Arpan Yagnik, assistant professor of advertising at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

“Think about what sticks with you,” he says. “A year after the Super Bowl, how many of those commercials do you remember? One? Maybe two?”

Phrased a different way: Can you remember who won the actual game?

We asked Yagnik what makes a Super Bowl commercial work.

Q: A 30-second spot in this year’s Super Bowl broadcast costs $5 million. Is it worth it?

A: It is if you have the right commercial. This is the best opportunity the year will offer to put your creativity and your idea in front of the largest possible audience. More than 100 million people are watching. That moment can make or break your brand for the next year.

Q: Several companies have teased their commercials or released them in their entirety online. What have you liked, so far?

A: The Mountain Dew and Doritos ad with Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage is quite good. People are going to be talking about that one. Amazon has an ad this year. We haven’t seen much from the major tech companies, so that should be interesting.

I’d love to see an ad from Tesla, but their strategy is totally different.

Q: Some of last year’s commercials had a political edge. Do you expect that again, this year?

A: I don’t. That was a bad move, and there is a fundamental reason not to do it: Companies exist to make a profit. When a company takes a political stance, people are going to object to that. There is always going to be a backlash.

Q: What’s worse: A commercial that plays it safe and is immediately forgotten, or a misfire that we mock on Monday?

A: Your message has to stand out. If you aren’t the best, you have to be the worst. People will be talking about both. Where you don’t want to be is in the middle.

Q: Why, on this one night, is there such an appetite for advertising? On any other day, that’s our cue to leave the room.

A: It’s the size and spectacle of the event, and the sense that, if you step away, you’re going to miss something.

The other factor is that the ads tend to be far better. Imagine that you’re in a museum, in a long hallway with art on the walls. You might notice some of that art, or you might not. When you get to the Mona Lisa, however, you stop. You pay attention when you see something that is genuinely amazing. The advertisements that are created for the Super Bowl are aiming for that. Any other day, we’re just walking through the hall.