Hashtags Displace URLs in Super Bowl XLVIII (And Why I Think Google Won the #AdBowl)

This article was originally published on the ExactTarget Marketing Cloud Blog.

As I write this, I'm now over three hours removed from the end of Super Bowl XLVIII, and I'm still on hold with the NFL to find out how I get refunded for the time I spent watching that game. Granted, if you're a Seattle Seahawks fan, you're in heaven right now, but if you're a fan of the Denver Broncos, competition, or digital/mobile/social marketing, you are disgruntled to say the least.  

Not only did the game leave a lot to be desired, but this year's #AdBowl also felt like it took several steps backwards--at least where consumer interaction was concerned. Indeed, it was apropos that Prince was the guest star on the post-Super Bowl New Girl because a lot of the ads could have run in 1999 and no one would have known the difference. 

Where to begin... Let's start with the analysis. This is my second year dissecting the calls-to-action online, mobile, social, and otherwise of every Super Bowl commercial from 6pm ET through the final commercial break after the end of the game.  If you want to review my analysis from 2013, you can catch it here with the 2013 infographic here. As for this year's game:

  • 119 commercials aired during Super Bowl XLVIII (6PM ET through the last commercial break immediately after the game <mercifully> ended). Last year, 126 commercials aired during that same period.
  • Of those 119 commercials, 25 commercials were for FOX programming compared to 33 last year for CBS programming. Only five FOX promos incorporated hashtags for Brooklyn Nine-Nine (#Brooklyn99), New Girl (#New Girl), and 24 (#JackIsBack). Only one FOX promos shared a URL (www.FoxSports1.com).  Last year, none of the CBS promos used URLs or hashtags. 
  • 5 of the 119 commercials were for NFL properties, four of which promoted URLs (NFLRush.comNFL.com/NOW - twice, NFL.com/sandcastle). Last year, CBS ran 10 NFL promos--9 of which incorporated URLs.

Removing those FOX and NFL promos from the mix, 89 paid commercials ran in my market (Cleveland) during the Super Bowl. That's up slightly from the 83 that ran during the CBS broadcast last year. Here's the breakdown in how those commercials sought to engage viewers digitally compared to 2013's numbers.

ExactTarget 2014 Super Bowl Ad Analysis

The observable trends that jump out at me include:

  • For the first time, social hashtags displaced website URLs at the #1 form of call-to-action in Super Bowl commercials (not necessarily a good trend--more on that below).
  • Super Bowl advertisers abandoned Facebook URLs entirely and dramatically decreased their use of Facebook icons--indeed all social icons--at the end of their ads. 
  • There was a total absence of any SMS and mobile app download calls to action.
  • The number of Super Bowl advertisers with no call to action whatsoever actually went up (from 15 in 2013 to 21 in 2014).
  • 3 brands (Ford, Wonderful Pistachios, and Bud Light) sought to aid in-game recall with multiple "callback ads" that built up on each other.
  • Super Bowl commercials are getting less interactive--not more. 

I could say that I'm shocked, but as I wrote about in my book AUDIENCE: Marketing in the Age of Subscribers, Fans & Followers, there is a fundamental and structural disconnect between the brand advertising and digital marketing departments in most big brands. To often, the teams tasked with producing Super Bowl ads are working in a vacuum in which branding is primary goal and creativity is your primary weapon. 

It simply should not be this way. If you're going to pay a purported $4 to $4.5 million for 30 seconds of Super Bowl viewers' attention, then you must do more than brand--you must create a moment that resonates and a means to capture immediate consumer interest and convert it either into a sale or permission to engage with a consumer in the future. 

Of this year's Super Bowl advertisers, only a few did this:

  • U2/RED/Bank of America drove me to download U2's new song for free via iTunes with a clear call-to-action and a promise of a $1 donation for each download to help RED fight the spread of AIDS. 
  • Bud Light gave viewers a chance to Shazam for a free download of Afrojack's new song. 
  • Jaguar gave viewers multiple options to engage with their British Villains (Shazam,BritishVillains.com, #GoodToBeBad)
  • Esurance got me to tweet #EsuranceSave30 for a chance to win $1.5 million immediately after the Super Bowl. By our count via Radian6, this generated over 1.3 million brand mentions on Twitter through 11:15pm ET. 

Of these examples, not one brand walked away with their own, proprietary database of subscribers (email, SMS, YouTube), fans (Facebook), or followers (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.). This is a problem. The Super Bowl is supposed to be the showcase event of our marketing and advertising creativity, and the best we can muster is a hashtag that's on-screen for less than a second?!? 

And did everyone forget that over 70% of the viewing public at home has a mobile device within reach? Where were the creative mobile calls to action? The stop-you-in-your-tracks demand to engage now before the opportunity passes? They didn't come because brands are clinging to the outdated notion that 30 seconds of Super Bowl attention is enough to create a memory that triggers some positive consumer action later. SPOILER ALERT: It's not. Guess where consumers go when your commercial's CTA isn't effective? It's one word and rhymes with "oogle."


That's right, in my estimation, Google won Super Bowl XLVIII because all of those consumers with a passing recollection of "that car with that kid and the thing" are going to turn to the search box for recall.  This is less of an issue with a CPG brand like Doritos who can win the day with consistent humor (its annual "Crash the Super Bowl" ads seldom disappoint), but it is definitely an issue with bigger ticket items (like luxury automobiles) that could have built a direct, proprietary audience on the back of their ads had they simply asked interested viewers to "subscribe to learn more at X website." Instead, they'll likely be paying for viewers again in the form of paid search advertising to capture their interest.

Rather than beat this dead horse, I'll wrap with my advice for next year's Super Bowl advertisers (and every advertiser this year):

  1. Force your brand advertising and digital/mobile/social marketing teams to work together NOW. You can no longer afford to treat your advertising CTAs as an afterthought. Digital, mobile, and social media concepts should be integrated into and help shape your creative direction so that your ad does more than just "brand" to the tune of $4.5 million per 30 seconds. Outcomes propelled by strong CTAs should be the focus of your advertising, not something tacked onto the end of your creative process.
  2. Use your paid ads to build direct, proprietary audiences. You need every ad to contribute to the growth of your most interested, direct consumer audiences. It is not a crime to end an ad with a call to subscribe via email, SMS, YouTube, etc. I thought brands would have learned this from Oreo using its Super Bowl ad to gain 85,000 Instagram subscribers, but alas, the lesson has yet to take. SHAMELESS PLUG: Read my book,AUDIENCE, for more on this point. 
  3. Treat all of your marketing--including Super Bowl commercials--as direct marketing. This goes hand-in-glove with the first point, but in an age where the vast majority of consumers have smartphones, tablets, or laptops within range of their TVs, it is a huge miss not to ask them to interact in some fashion with your advertising. 
  4. Lengthen the time your CTAs are on-screen. The average Super Bowl ad devoted all of 1 second of screen time to its CTA--be it a URL, hashtag, or other site.  That's ridiculous. Yes, many consumers can rewind live TV these days, but few will during a live game. Take a page out of Verizon's book who left their URL (vzw.com/45plan) and hashtag (#RealityCheck) on screen for the entirety of their commercial. 
  5. Be overt. Last year, I ranted about ads that ended with a spray of social media icons but no reason to engage. While I was glad to see most of those disappeared from 2014 ads, the proliferation of meaningless hashtags more than made up for the loss. Hashtags alone are not a meaningful call to action--especially if they're new, hard to spell, or too cute for school. Before deploying them, ask if you'd rather have consumers tweeting out your hashtag or your Twitter handle. Furthermore, ask if the hashtag will drive people back to content or media you control. If the answer is no, maybe a hashtag is the wrong CTA. Esurance's hashtag (#EsuranceSave30) worked because they made it the focus of their entire commercial and giveaway promotion. 

Speaking of hashtags, I'll end this year's post as I did last year's, with a laundry list of the hashtags deployed by brands in their 2014 Super Bowl ads. Can you identify the brand behind the hashtag? If they strike you as odd or less than memorable, imagine how they struck the average consumer who doesn't eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff--or stay tuned into 43-8 blowouts when there are better things to be doing.

  • #AlexAndAni
  • #AmericaIsBeautiful
  • #AmericasImport
  • #BeckhamforHM
  • #BestBuds
  • #Brooklyn99
  • #CaptainAmerica
  • #CupTherapy
  • #Doritos
  • #Empowering
  • #EsuranceSave30
  • #Framily
  • #Goodbye80s
  • #GoodToBeBad
  • #HondaAccord
  • #HowMatters
  • #HugFest
  • #IfYoureHappy
  • #ItsGoTime
  • #JackIsBack
  • #KissForPeace
  • #LiveYourDream
  • #MadeInAmerica
  • #NearlyDouble
  • #NewGirl
  • #NFSMovie
  • #NiceHashtag
  • #NoCompromise
  • #NoContract
  • #RealityCheck
  • #SaluteAHero
  • #SilveradoStrong
  • #SlowClap
  • #SlowBark
  • #Sonos
  • #Spiderman
  • #StayRestless
  • #StayUncompromised
  • #TeamSmallBiz
  • #TheFloodIsComing
  • #Unleash
  • #UpForWhatever
  • #VW

In short, this year's Super Bowl commercials were by and large a step backwards for brands -- at least when it comes to leveraging the power of digital, mobile, and social. We can and should do better using our paid media to drive traffic to our owned media as well as growth in our subscribers, fans, and followers across all channels. Let's hope that Super Bowl XLIX proves to be better in that regard all around.

And I'll save you from my annual optimist's pronouncement that my beloved Cleveland Browns will be in that Super Bowl.  Heck, I'll be happy to go a season without firing a head coach.