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6 Stages of Ad Grief: When A Super Bowl Ad Fails

As the grades from Ad Age, USA Today, and Yahoo suggest, there’s no clear consensus on a Super Bowl ad “winner” this year. The only agreement is that most ads relied on a few fail-safe tactics: Be silly. Heavy up on celebrity. Go all-in on animal anthropomorphism. Be serious, but not a serious bummer.

It felt like the fear of “bombing” weighed more heavily than usual on the minds of advertisers this year. You know, the national spotlight, more than 100 million viewers, being branded the Super Bowl ad loser (à la Nationwide last year). No pressure.

But what goes through a viewer’s mind when a Super Bowl ad bombs? We spent time before the ads hit the airwaves asking more than 300 people their thoughts and feelings about Super Bowl ad fails. Here’s what we learned.

1. Money down the drain… 

The exorbitant cost for a Super Bowl ad – this year, a 30-second spot was $5 million – lingers in the back of people’s minds as they watch the commercials. When an ad fails, hefty price tags seem that much more wasteful.

“They spent how much money on this ad? How did they ever think this was a good idea?” questioned one person. Another thinks, “What a ginormous waste of money. … Sometimes, I feel like . . . I could have come up with something better.”

2. Who is responsible for this?!

After considering the money wasted, people blame marketers and ad execs for “failing.” They question their judgement, their taste, and whether they even know them, the audience, at all.

One person said they “wonder how the ad got as far as it did.” Another sympathetic viewer said, “I cringe and think of all the people that worked on it that basically failed.”

Others were less forgiving. “Seriously? Who was in a conference room . . . and said, ‘That’s a great idea?’”

3. Pity the fools

Even for a PuppyMonkeyBaby, viewers know that human beings are, in fact, responsible. They feel sorry for people behind bombs, worrying they may soon be unemployed.

“I usually wonder who came up with such a terrible idea and if the whole marketing department got fired afterwards,” said one viewer. Another said, “I feel bad that those people may lose their jobs over this awful and expensive ad.”

4. Don’t waste my time 

Perhaps the biggest disappointment over bad Super Bowl ads is that those 30 seconds could have been used for a bathroom break or another helping of nachos. As one person put it: “During the Super Bowl you’re actually sticking around … to be entertained by the ads, so when there’s a boring or stupid ad, you feel let down.”

Bad ads also rob viewers of the opportunity to see more entertaining ones instead. “I feel cheated out of that slot that could have gone to a better commercial.”

5. You lost my R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The worst bombs are those that are seen as distasteful. Viewers lose respect for companies that make inappropriate or cringe-worthy ads.

“When I see bad ads, it makes me lose respect for the company,” one person declared. “This is especially true when the ad is in bad taste.”

What’s worse, these ads can negatively affect sales. “I would never, ever purchase from them because of their poor taste,” said one viewer. “I don’t feel like I would use that company’s services because they clearly don’t make very good choices,” said another. “I don’t think . . . I want to invest my money into something that makes horrible advertising campaigns.”

6. Who am I to judge what’s bad? 

When it comes to ad bombs, viewers question whether it really is that “bad” for the brand, or whether being “bad” is, ultimately, good. As one person put it: “Even bad commercials get remembered.”

Another wondered “if this helps or hurts the product in the end. If people are talking about it, maybe in a weird twisted way, it helps with popularity (think about how Donald Trump keeps doing dumb, bad things yet somehow he remains at top of polls???!).”
If brands had taken a few more risks this year, maybe we’d be talking about a clear winner rather than a lack of consensus. Instead of playing it safe, a safer bet for advertisers is getting to know some of the people on the other side of the TV screen more intimately. When they do, advertisers stand a much better chance of turning a big, risky investment into a relevant, lasting connection.

This article was originally published in MediaPost.

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