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Sixty Seconds To Score

Winning Super Sunday with a Super Story

by TJ Barranger

(February 2, 2014) - It's coming. I can feel it looming on the horizon: the annual, uninhibited, no-holds-barred, unabashedly over-the-top media onslaught that is Super Bowl advertising. Tonight, corporations pull out all the stops — and their wallets — for the opportunity to leave a lasting impression in the mind of Joe Six-Pack in 60 seconds or less. That's right; brands are spending millions of dollars to have a chat with you and me. Just thinking about it gives me a thrill, and makes me want to wrap myself in the warm, fuzzy green blanket of American capitalism.

Commercial airtime for this year's Super Bowl broadcast is rumored to cost around $8M a minute. In light of that cost, it amazes me how many more millions of dollars brands are willing spend on top of that to impress us with celebrities and special effects. Yes, if you're paying a king's ransom for the biggest bully pulpit in the world, there is a legitimate desire to stand out (GoDaddy comes to mind). But more "bling" isn't the key. This year's commercials are long since wrapped and in the queue. But for those vendors and ad execs plotting their plan of attack for next year, here's my advice: make your message count; just tell me a great story.

When I think about the most impactful Super Bowl commercials of all time, the ads that stand out in my mind are those that tell a great story, and make me feel some sort of emotional bond to the characters and — subsequently — the product. Explosions, animation, and star power are cool, and may even make me smile. But a superior narrative wins me over every time.

Exhibit A: "The Force" (Volkswagen USA, 2013)

No CG, no gimmickry, no celebs. Heck, no words. Just a thoughtfully crafted, heart-warming, and beautifully acted mini-story that touches on all the right emotions. Even the car is relegated to a cameo appearance (a very effective one, I might add). What you're left with is one of the most popular and successful Super Bowl commercials of all time. So here's why it works...

First of all, the ad builds upon a universal pop culture reference. Everyone knows Star Wars. Darth Vader is one of the most recognized movie villains of all time. The film's 1977 release date puts this ad right in the wheelhouse of VW's target demographic (male, head of household, age 35 - 45). Also, countless Star Wars devotees and sci-fi fanatics have turned their passion into their livelihood by working in the technology and aerospace industries, which puts them in VW's target income demographic as well.

Woven into the comfortably familiar cultural reference, anchored by John Williams' iconic score (which may well have been the most expensive part of the ad), is a potent narrative about a pint-sized protagonist who has a lofty thirst for power and a vivid imagination, but who repeatedly falls short of realizing his dreams. Just when our hero appears to lose all hope, enter Dad, who, with some quick thinking (and some help from the car), creates a bit of magic and saves the day for his little Sith Lord. All dads want to be heroes to their kids, and this feel-good spot made dads everywhere pump their fists and say, "Yes!" and maybe even visit a VW dealer.

Exhibit B: "Brotherhood" (Anheuser-Busch, 2013)

Bigger budget here, but still no frills, all story. Budweiser's 2013 installment in the ongoing chronicle of their famed clydesdales revolves around a young horse and the trainer who grooms him for the draft team. The ad reaches its climax with some stunning imagery of the clydesdale hitting a full gallop along a Chicago thoroughfare before reuniting with his estranged "brother". Again, rather than rely on star power or special effects, the producers put all of their budget dollars into brilliant lighting and cinematography, and allow the characters to leap off the screen and into our hearts.

Does the ad sell beer? Not directly. Does it anchor the Budweiser name in America's collective psyche? You bet. And that makes it easier for Anheuser Busch to sell more beer down the road.

In each of these examples, the story is the star; no camera tricks, no stunts, no dialogue, nothing to detract from the narrative. Once the big game gets underway, I'll be watching for more ads that follow this trend. It's powerful, and for me at least, it's very entertaining. I can't wait for kick-off.

TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: