Featured in Adweek: Shared Experience Is Worth the Price of a Super Bowl Ad

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By: Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

The Super Bowl is coming up, which is a major competitive event for, you guessed it, advertisers. If you’re reading this column, you’ll probably focus a lot on the commercials while watching the game. As always, they’ll include some of the most creative ads of the year as well as a few head-scratchers.

Advertisers pay a premium to be seen in this hyper-watched game—the question marketers always ask is, “Is it worth it?” While it’s difficult to justify the cost, the psychology of shared experiences, much of the time, makes it worthwhile.

Reach and Frequency

The cost of running an ad during the Super Bowl this year is a lot. You could buy 30 seconds in the finals of every other major U.S. sporting event for less than one Super Bowl spot. It’s a challenging purchase to justify solely in terms of reach and frequency, even when we include social media and other online engagement—using traditional metrics, it’s not actually a great value. Yet, it can drive significant sales for a company.

In 2015, a Stanford University study that tracked three major brands—Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and Coke—showed that a Super Bowl ad can spike sales of 10-15% per household in subsequent months. The exception was when a competitor also ran ads during the game; then the gains turned to losses, as this can kill the effectiveness of both campaigns or shift mild gains to whomever generated more buzz. This doesn’t happen often, as most big spenders demand category exclusivity, but smaller and first-time spenders can be caught off guard.

Considering the risk involved, what explains the discrepancy between traditional data projections and the possibility of record sales outcomes?

The psychology of shared experiences

You may have read that consumers don’t make rational decisions but rather instinctive, System 1 decisions. A major driver of those decisions are the perceptions of other people and what they think, often referred to as social proof.

But social proof typically applies to other people’s endorsement of a brand, such as online reviews. Shared experience is a related but different phenomenon, sometimes called cultural imprinting. It refers to what consumers think other people believe based on what we see in pop culture and other sociological cues.

Once consumers see something in a widespread medium, they assume that everyone has seen it—after all, everyone watches the Super Bowl, right? Consumers then assume they know what everyone else thinks about the brand. The shared experience has a significant cultural impact and a large effect on perceptions and decision-making. In short, it acts as an accelerant for other psychological drivers.

A couple of examples: If an auto company wants to make their car appear to represent “traditional values,” shared experience consumers will believe everyone believes the car conveys those values—RAM used this concept with their Super Bowl spot in 2013. If you’re launching a new brand, shared experience consumers will believe they are conspicuously early adopters—Death Wish Coffee used this concept to accelerate their growth via the Super Bowl in 2016.

Shared experiences can be very powerful for brands amplifying psychological drivers in marketing. They can dramatically accelerate the success of an ad or campaign. But this effect can’t be replicated online, where people tend to underestimate the number of others that see online ads. This means it’s unique to mass media, like TV, and events that are widely viewed, like the Super Bowl. These shared experience events are growing increasingly rare as TV viewing grows more fragmented, which only drives the value of major events even higher.

As you watch the Super Bowl with the rest of the U.S., you’ll share in the unique psychological phenomenon that helps drive advertising success.

Give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected] to discuss how we can help you turn psychological insights into great creative advertising.