Super Bowl ads: Stories beat sex and humor, Johns Hopkins researcher finds

Analysis shows that viewers favor ads with dramatic plot lines

Image caption: Budweiser's "Puppy Love" Super Bowl XLVIII commercial tells the story of the bond between a puppy and one of the brand's famous Clydesdales.

They say sex sells, but when it comes to Super Bowl ads, a Johns Hopkins researcher begs to differ.

Keith A. Quesenberry

Image caption: Keith A. Quesenberry

It's all about the storytelling, says Keith A. Quesenberry, a lecturer in the university's Center for Leadership Education in the School of Engineering.

Quesenberry, who teaches marketing, advertising, and social media classes, conducted a two-year content analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. He found that people rated commercials with dramatic plotlines significantly higher than ads without clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

"People think it's all about sex or humor or animals, but what we've found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not," Quesenberry said.

Quesenberry's study, conducted with business professor Michael K. Coolsen of Shippensburg University, "What Makes a Super Bowl Ad Super for Word-of-Mouth Buzz? Five-Act Dramatic Form Impacts Super Bowl Ad Ratings," will be published this spring in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice.

This year, a Super Bowl spot will cost $4 million for 30 seconds. Even with an expected viewership of 11 million people, Quesenberry said advertisers are looking for more—they want to have the ad that goes viral online. This year, he predicts, that ad will be Budweiser's tear-jerker about a puppy's friendship with a horse.

The more complete a story marketers tell in their commercials, he says, the higher it performs in the ratings polls, the more people like it, want to view it, and share it.

"Budweiser loves to tell stories—whole movies, really, crunched into 30 seconds," Quesenberry said. "And people love them."