What makes a great Super Bowl ad? There’s a long list of winning qualities – humor, celebrities, tear-jerking moments.
In recent years, though, audiences have loved Super Bowl ads that show the full spectrum of American lives. Diverse casting leads to stronger, more resonant ads.
We see this in our data. Every year, we test all of the national Super Bowl ads during the game by showing them to an online panel that rates how each ad makes them feel. Those measures, along with others like brand fluency (how rapidly they recognize the brand in the ad) ultimately predict the long- and short-term effectiveness of a spot.
Last year, we saw a remarkable result. All of the Top 10 ads on our effectiveness measure starred Black actors or celebrities. Some, like Serena Williams for Nintendo, appeared by themselves. Others were part of a montage showing people of different races, ages and backgrounds. Regardless, Black people starred in every one of the most effective ads at last year’s big game.
Black representation is, of course, only one of many elements to ensure that advertising better reflects American life. But it’s an indication not just that agencies are taking inclusion seriously, but that audiences want them to as well.
Only a decade ago, Cheerios sparked both controversy and soul-searching in the ad industry when its commercial starring a biracial family was removed from YouTube after receiving racist commentary. Cheerios brought the family back its 2014 Super Bowl ad, and it performed well in our tests. Since then, we’ve seen tons of strong, effective advertising with diverse casting. Diversity makes ads more effective.
So how do brands employ it well? Looking at Super Bowl ads, we’ve found there are three main strategies that brands typically use.
- The Melting Pot Ad: Explicitly shows diversity via a montage of different scenes starring a range of people.
- The Issue-Driven Ad: Directly raises or comments on an issue affecting a group of Americans.
- The Inclusive Ad: An ad which doesn ’t require diverse casting, but uses it anyway.
Each of these has inspiring Super Bowl examples, but each also presents risks and pitfalls. Let’s look at them more closely.
I’ll start with the “Melting Pot” approach, because it dominates effective Super Bowl advertising right now. The Top four ads last year—Huggies, McDonalds, Doordash, and M&Ms—used a variety of characters from diverse backgrounds. (Doordash even threw the Muppets in for good measure). The most common way to make this kind of ad is to show a montage of different shots starring different characters.
These ads work—assuming the basic idea is right, they tend to make viewers very happy. The downside, however, is that they gloss over specific stories that might resonate particularly well with one group. Also, they can feel like box-ticking exercises if handled insensitively.
The Issue-Driven ad solves that—it’s a vehicle to tell individual stories or dramatize things that affect one group of people. These often win critical acclaim, like P&G’s “The Talk” in 2017. But making a worthy or even an important ad is not always the same as making an effective one that grows a brand.
The Issue-Driven ads that work best with Super Bowl audiences focus on individual struggles and triumphs. Toyota’s 2021 ad spotlighting Paralympians really moved viewers. Stories of inspiring women are also very popular, like 2020’s “Secret Kickers” ad by Secret showing women football players, and Microsoft’s 2019 “In It To Win It,” spotlighting the first female NFL coach.
Finally, the Inclusive Ads. These ads would work the same way with any casting—they just happen to star people from an underrepresented group. They aren’t being explicit about their inclusiveness in the way the other examples are. Diversity isn’t the point of the ad.
Paradoxically, these ads can be the most powerful for groups underrepresented on screen. When we looked at diversity in UK ads, we found that the biggest “Diversity Dividend”—the uplift in effectiveness between the response of the public and the response of the featured group—came with ads which simply showed normal life, representing joy rather than struggle.
These ads aren’t so well represented at the Super Bowl, but those like Nintendo’s Serena Williams spot do play a similar role. Serena isn’t starring in the ad because she’s a superstar, an athlete, or a Black woman. She’s just chilling and playing games with her family. But even though anyone could be doing that, it matters that it’s her.
Brands must realize how strong an asset diverse casting is for their game-day ads. Get the basics right and diversity will be the secret sauce which makes a good ad great.
Jon Evans is chief marketing officer at System1.