Customers Might Like Your Ad, But It Doesn’t Mean They’ll Buy Anything

Apple Superbowl Ad 1984

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Even though the average price tag for Super Bowl ads this year is a whopping $3.5 million for a 30-second spot, the ad space has sold out. There are many reasons for this. They all point to reaching a very large and engaged audience at a point in history when the media market is fractured into many pieces because of an ever-increasing number of TV, radio, out-of-home, Internet, and mobile media channels.However, when you cut through all the hype surrounding Super Bowl ads, advertisers should realise that there is a problem. The ads that consumers and pundits say they like the best tend to be the least effective at selling the product.

Apple Mac 1984 Super Bowl Spot

Apple’s famous spot by Chiat Day, directed by Ridley Scott, that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl won numerous awards and has been called the best ad of that year, that decade and even the best Super Bowl ad of all time. There are lots of great things you could say about this commercial, and many people have. One thing you cannot say is that it was effective in selling the Macintosh.

The Mac share of the market was in the mid single digits that year and went down after that, Steve Jobs left Apple and wandered for 12 years, and Apple was a company that nearly went out of business until the iPod started to bring the company out of the cellar in 2001. In fact, many may not remember that, upon his return to Apple, Steve Jobs engineered a $150 million investment from Microsoft in 1997 to help save the company. This horrified many Apple fans, but enabled Apple to survive until the iPod came to the rescue four years later.

Even with all of Apple’s successes since the iPod, the Macintosh was not able to break the 10% market-share threshold until 2010. Rather than receive any traceable assist from “the best Super Bowl ad of all time” 26 years before, most believe that the iPod and iPhone combined with Microsoft’s Vista debacle are largely responsible.

Fast forward to Super Bowl 2011

Last year, the Super Bowl was played on February 6, 2011. Many thought the best Super Bowl commercial was “The Force” by Deutsch for Volkswagen. It featured a young boy dressed in a Darth Vader costume who, after being frustrated that his “powers” did not work around the house, is surprised when he is able to use “The Force” to turn on the family car (not knowing that his father starts the car using a remote key from the kitchen). This spot became so popular that it was featured on news programs and talk shows and has had over 49 million views on YouTube. The kid in the commercial was interviewed on talk shows, and according to Adweek, it was the best TV Commercial of 2011.

To judge this ad by its viral success, it was a smash hit.

Reminiscent of Apple’s 1984 commercial, however, this ad has not proven effective at selling the product advertised. In fact, in the month following the airing of this commercial, the Volkswagen Passat (the product that was featured in the commercial) was the worst selling car in America. Why? Many people who vividly remember the commercial are unable to identify the company or the product being advertised. To double-check the data, I asked my 200 students (most of whom saw the commercial when it aired or on the news replays) to identify the car and the company that makes it. None of them could. Even if they could recognise the car being advertised, what do they learn from this ad? The only benefit shown is that the car can be started by remote control. Well, a lot of competitors can do that. Earth to advertisers, your job is to sell the product – not just win awards and congratulate yourselves for viral success.

The main purpose of advertising is to sell, sell, sell

Those that study advertising discover that many of the ads that people love are ineffective at selling the product. In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy says, “Go through a magazine and pick out the ads that you like best. You will probably pick those with beautiful illustrations or clever copy. You forget to ask if your favourite ads would make you want to buy the product.” He goes on to say…

  • “Of 81 TV ad classics picked by the Clio festival, 36 of the agencies had either lost the account or gone out of business.”
  • “The Benton and Bowles agency holds that if it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”
  • “After being head of J. Walter Thompson (at the time the largest ad agency in the world) for 45 years, Stanley Resor told me ‘Every year we spend hundreds of millions of dollars of our clients’ money. At the end of it, what do we know? Nothing.’ “

Call me old fashioned, but good marketers know that the purpose of advertising is to sell more products, sell the company stock, and maybe even eventually sell the company. Yes, there may be other objectives too, but if the ads don’t sell, there will be little money available to do all the wonderful things that companies need to do. As was the case with Apple in 1997, if the ads don’t sell, companies may have to turn to the “Evil Empire” and sell the family jewels to get cash to survive.