How Long Does It Take To Torch $4 Million? 30 Seconds

Here's a marketing tip that applies to not just Super Bowl commercials but any advertising or content you're creating: Assume your audience doesn't know as much as you do about what you're pitching.

Obvious, right? If so, why do companies continue to waste money ignoring such a simple lesson? Why Did Maserati and Intuit blow $4 million every 30 seconds of their Sunday night commercials when it would have been easy to make their ads pay off?

Look at Maserati's commercial for their new "affordable" sedan, the Ghibli. Maserati sold fewer than 5,000 cars in the U.S. last year. Given that, is it possible that the brand is not in the forefront of viewers' minds when it comes to car companies? Wouldn't it be smart to spend your millions communicating what the Ghibli actually is? Then why does Maserati's commercial sound like a trailer for a sci-fi movie before incongruously springing the Ghibli on you at the end?

The world is full of dragons. They have always been here. Lumbering in the schoolyards. Limping through the alleys. We had to learn how to deal with them. How to overcome them. We were small, but fast...
— Maserati Ghibli Super Bowl Ad Voiceover
 "Ooh! I bet this is a commercial for the new Ghibli" --No one

"Ooh! I bet this is a commercial for the new Ghibli" --No one

The video accompanying the voiceover includes a wave, a tornado, a firefighter, a welder, sailboat racers and other myriad, unconnected imagery. I spent the entire commercial trying to figure out what the heck they were pitching, which comes 20 seconds from the end of the 1:30 commercial with an engine rev and the reveal of the Ghibli.

It's a beautifully produced commercial and I like the pitch that Maserati is the new, smaller, more nimble competitor. But I spent over 2/3 of the ad trying to figure out if it was for a movie or some new, pretentious video-sharing app. When the reveal comes, it's such a non sequitur that I can't immediately make the connection. I don't remember what the narration said and now the next commercial is stealing my attention. It was only upon rewatching it for this post did I understand what they were trying to do. (By the way, Apple's 1984 ad also had a surprising reveal, but it told a visually evocative story that was easy to ingest and understand, and the build up and reveal were connected very explicitly: "You'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984.")

Intuit made a related mistake with their TurboTax commercial. The majority of the pitch is pointing out that your team's not in the Super Bowl and then making comparisons to other examples of your having it "rough." Like, "Seeing that girl you love and watching her dance with some guy who isn't you!" The buildup to the reveal is, "This isn't your holiday! Somebody stole your holiday! You need to take it back!" And how do you do this? Why, by hopping on TurboTax and filing your tax return, of course! Wait, wha?

 Don't sit there like a loser. Go file your tax return!

Don't sit there like a loser. Go file your tax return!

Again, a big reveal that is a complete non sequitur and as a result falls completely flat. Maserati's mistake was having a captivating narration with mismatched imagery that captured your curiosity, only to throw it away with the unconnected reveal. TurboTax's was having a silly, throwaway buildup leading to what they probably thought was a clever, ironic punchline but was really unrelated nonsense.

Either way, neither marketing team considered how far in one direction their buildup took viewers before yanking them back to the brand. This isn't clever or even smartly manipulative, it's confusing. And confusing doesn't sell products.

Compare the TurboTax ad with the Doritos time-travel ad. It was a shallow, puffy commercial with no pretense. What humor it had hinged on a punchline, but the build up actually included the product, so the viewer didn't have to expend mental energy figuring anything out. Just sit back, chuckle and have a fleeting yummy thought of Doritos. Mission accomplished.

In closing, here are three tips to avoid this mistake, whether it's in a Super Bowl commercial, blog post or even a tweet:

  1. Don't make the reveal a total non sequitur. Surprises are fine, twists are terrific and good punchlines need a bit of misdirection. But don't take the viewer or reader far down a road that ends at a cliff and expect them to care about the journey.
  2. Unless your brand or product is a household name and already associated with the premise of your content, include it from the beginning. The Maserati commercial would have been much more effective had they simply included a Ghibli lurking in the background of the various imagery, or had the video montage subtly telegraphed what the reveal would be. After all, everyone knew the Budweiser puppy would end up with his Clydesdale friend. That didn't make his struggles any less heart tugging. Not everything needs to be a surprise.
  3. Understand what your viewer or reader needs to know. By all means, be creative with lovingly crafted metaphors and witticisms that would earn you a starring role in a Mad Men movie. But give the customer what they need in order to want your product or service. If you're Bud Light, everyone knows what your product is and what it tastes like. Your job is to re-imprint your brand on brains and you do this by entertaining. If you're Beats Music your job is to explain what your product is and how it's different, which they did, very entertainingly.