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The Unexpected Downside of Super Bowl Ads

Daryl Weber

How focused attention may actually make ads less effective

Despite what advertisers may want to believe, we rarely give TV ads our full attention. If we’re not fast-forwarding them, we’re picking up our smart phones, going to the bathroom or doing just about anything other than focusing on the commercials.

But not at the Super Bowl. Oh no. On this sacred day, commercials are king. They can even outshine the game itself. This is the one time that when the commercials come on, the crowd hushes, puts down their chicken wings, and waits to be amazed.

Sounds like an advertiser’s dream, right? Not so fast.

Normally we watch TV - and especially TV ads - in a passive, low attention state that Dr. Robert Heath of the University of Bath in the UK calls low-involvement processing. We’re relaxed, partially paying attention, but probably also thinking about and doing other things.

Here’s the kicker: low-involvement processing, in some ways, may actually be the best way for advertisers to reach their audience. Studies by Dr. Heath and his team suggest that when we process TV ads in a low-involvement state, we often let our guard down, allowing marketing messages to seep into our subconscious. Heath believes we’re more open and accepting of messages since we’re not giving enough conscious attention to rationalize it or argue back.

This is called implicit learning - we learn without realizing we’re learning. Since our brains are constantly bombarded with stimuli from the environment, we’ve evolved to filter out most of it and only pay conscious attention to what’s really important. And not surprisingly, brands don’t usually make the cut. So when faced with marketing messages, especially with repeated exposures, our minds relax, and we end up receiving and accepting the message without giving it a second thought.

But that’s not what happens on Super Bowl Sunday. Here, we’re amped up, waiting to see what the next blockbuster ad will bring. We’re in a high-involvement processing state, and are more likely to give the message conscious thought and attention. This can be a good thing for marketers - if we like the ad we’re more likely to remember it and think fondly of the brand. But it can also backfire. In this type of high arousal state, Heath believes we’re more likely to consciously argue and defend ourselves from ads, and less open and accepting of the message.

This idea can be applied beyond Super Bowl advertising, of course. It suggests advertisers shouldn’t worry as much about capturing people's conscious attention, but rather accept and embrace their audience's laid back, low-involvement attitude towards ads. This would mean focusing more on consistently building the implicit and emotional associations you want connected to your brand, rather than trying to push the more rational arguments, especially when they are highly engaged. That type of hard sell could get you into a mental battle with your viewers, and this research suggests they’ll be armed and ready.

Now back to the chicken wings.