Why Super Bowl Commercials Are So Effective

Super Bowl commercials capture our attention because they tend to be highly creative and well-produced. At around $4 million dollars for a thirty second spot, Super Bowl advertisers need to create the best, most innovative commercials possible. To do that, they use patterns. Professor Jacob Goldenberg and his colleagues discovered that 89% of 200 award winning ads fall into a few simple, well-defined design structures. Their book, “Cracking the Ad Code,” defines eight of these structures and provides a step-by-step approach to use them.

Here are the eight tools:
1. Unification
2. Activation
3. Metaphor
4. Subtraction
5. Extreme Consequence
6. Extreme Effort
7. Absurd Alternative
8. Inversion

Let’s see how the 2015 Super Bowl ads fit these patterns.

The Unification Tool uses components of the medium or within the environment of the advertisement to convey the message. This McDonald’s commercial does a nice job of taking actual customers and making them part of the message:


The Activation Tool gets the viewer to make a physical or mental interaction with the ad. Here is an example from Discover Card. It gets your heart pounding!

The Metaphor Tool fuses or manipulates a recognizable symbol to convey the message. The All Nature Burger from Carl’s Jr. uses a provocative metaphor of a naked woman to convey this:

The Subtraction Tool removes elements that one would consider essential to the message. It works well because the human mind tends to fill in the missing elements automatically. Here is a commercial from Nationwide and the “disappearing” Mindy:

The Extreme Consequence Tool conveys the absurd result of using the product or service. It works because it is memorable and vivid. The commercial for Mountain Dew’s Kickstart does it well:

The Extreme Effort Tool conveys the attractiveness of the product or service by the extremes one must go through to use it. The Bud Light Pac Man commercial really sells it:

The Absurd Alternative Tool shows an exaggerated alternative to using the product or service as way to highlight its main benefit. Here is an example from T-Mobile and the Data Scavenger:

Finally, The Inversion Tool conveys what would happen if you didn’t have the product or service, but in an extreme way. As with the other tools in the “Extreme” family of tools, it tries to create ads that are  vivid, memorable, and surprising. My favorite is from Mophie about what happens when God runs out of battery power on his smartphone. Oh my!