Perhaps our favorite time of year. Energy and excitement is bustling in every sports enthusiast. More than 114 million people sat in front of their TVs tuned into the big game, Super Bowl 50, to watch Peyton Manning plug Budweiser on one of the last and most exciting football game of the year.  The Super Bowl is a big event and Super Bowl 50 is as big as it gets. As much as we enjoy watching professional athletes compete, you know we’re really watching it for the ads.

The Super Bowl is a reflection of North America’s attitude. This attitude is captured in 30 second pieces of branded entertainment that get teased, analyzed, and recirculated in lists and GIFs for weeks after the game ends.  So while the big games score line was Broncos 24 Panthers 10, what was final score for the advertisers?

Humour: In Sad-vertising: Hit the Showers
In stark contrast to ads in 2015, where 4 of the top 6 rated ads were strongly emotional, heartstring tugging affairs, the age of sad-vertising seems to be, at least temporarily over. This year advertisers focused on dachshunds dressed as hot dogs racing towards a family of Heinz condiments and Kevin Hart freaking out about his daughter’s dating life.

So what happened to Budweiser’s lost puppies and Dodge’s octogenarians?

They didn’t develop positive mental associations with the brands.
If you recall the big advertising story of the 2015 ad cycle was the Nationwide advertisement entitled “Boy”, although you probably remember it better as that ad with the dead kid – don’t worry that’s how everyone remembers it.


In the aftermath of that ad, the Chief Marketing Officer for Nationwide had to issue a public apology, deal with the massive social media fallout, and then resign. Yikes! While that’s sad for him, the real victim here is Nationwide. Good branding builds mental availability, because it aligns brands with desirable neurological attributes and builds mental shortcuts that kick in at just the right time to drive consumers towards a purchase decision.

The ad is both sad – an emotion you don’t want your brand aligned with – and associates the company with death. Death, aside from being negative, is also, thankfully, quite a rare neurological pathway to activate so the brand really does itself no favours by being associated with it.

Contrast that campaign with the highest rated humorous campaign from the same year – Fiat’s “Little Blue Pill.”


The branding team behind that ad communicated their message clearly and reinforced all the right mental shortcuts to create mental availability. The ad is funny, memorable and still reinforces the brand promise of a strong car in a small stylish package. Is it coincidental that Fiat experienced a 19% revenue increase in the following quarter?

With Super Bowl ads now selling for an average of $5 million, up more than $500,000 from 2015, marketing agencies have a huge, albeit expensive, platform to showcase and promote their brands. With so much on the line it’s no surprise that brands have fallen back on humor in 2016. Humor is a proven method for building positive mental availability and with North Americans increasingly viewing the commercials as part of the entertainment, brands have taken notice.

This year’s commercials were studded with star actors, athletes, and famous characters. Amazon made its debut with Alec Baldwin and Dan Marino discussing how to build a “snack stadium”. Even the PSA stylings of Helen Mirren in her Budweiser ad calling you an idiot if you drink and drive aired on the comedic side of serious.


Only the coming year’s earnings will tell what resonated with audiences and what built positive mental associations in the minds of consumers. But if all of the top ad lists for the year are any indication, humour is the key to building positive mental availability with your consumers and thus growing your brand. That or unsolicited endorsements from future hall of famers.