#PuppyMonkeyBaby: HBS’ Expert Panel Analyzes Super Bowl 50’s Commercials

Harbus-LogoLet’s be honest. Although the Super Bowl game itself can be edge-of-your-seat entertaining, the much-anticipated and highly-analyzed Super Bowl commercials are what many of us care about the most. February 7th’s Super Bowl 50, broadcast by CBS, delivered slightly disappointing ratings with an approximate average of 114.4 million viewers (down about 2.5 million from last year’s broadcast), with the decline argued by many to be a result of a not-so-exciting game between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.

HBS Marketing Professor, Donald Ngwe and five current Harvard Business School students with various marketing and brand management backgrounds have shared their analyses and thoughts on the roughly $5 Million 30-second spots. Which commercials scored the winning touchdown, and which fumbled the Hail Mary pass?

Donald Ngwe
Assistant Professor | Marketing Unit


Of all the ads this was the most striking to me in both imagery and product category. There were a few advertisers this year that ran on the theme of grand changes (e.g. Rocket Mortgage, LG) but PayPal staked its claim most boldly. It effectively used clear visuals, plain wording, and upbeat music to convince us that PayPal is “new money” and that “old money” is tired, clumsy, and just uncool.

The problem is that bills and coins make for a curious straw man for PayPal to hold up during the Super Bowl. The ad does not differentiate PayPal against its real competition—credit cards and newer online payment systems. This leaves me thinking that either (i) PayPal is attempting to compete on the basis of sheer brand recognition, or that (ii) they are targeting a relatively unsophisticated market that knows little about available payment alternatives.

Both strategies seems short sighted and limited, and my take is that the ad is a missed opportunity to highlight actual product benefits in a way that might actually influence consumers to change their behavior. With famous data breaches still fresh in people’s minds, going after paper money seems, ironically, old.


walkenThis was a case of the right ad for the wrong product. The first half of the ad is promising enough: a familiar message delivered in a fresh medium and Christopher Walken in a walk-in closet wielding a sock puppet. Can’t lose, right? The message is clear: don’t go through life in beige socks, shorthand for being dull and uninspired. Walken delivers his lines so convincingly that midway through I’m throwing out half my inventory of socks.Then we see the product and the ad becomes a parody of itself. I am sure the Kia Optima has a great many wonderful features, but if there was ever a vehicular version of beige socks then the Kia must be it. To make things worse the car is displayed in the most unexpected of colors: white. (At least it wasn’t beige.)

We sometimes see product claims that lack a reason to believe, but this ad offers the rare treat of a reason to disbelieve. In the end the ad spend was probably still worth it to keep Kia on the map, but it was probably possible to be clever while communicating benefits that the product can actually deliver.

Donald Ngwe is an assistant professor in the Marketing Unit. He teaches the Marketing course in the MBA required curriculum. Professor Ngwe directs his research at measuring consumer responses to online and offline retailing strategies and predicting the performance of pricing. He earned his PhD in economics at Columbia University, together with an MPhil and MA, also in economics. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of the Philippines.

stressed out green v2 640x100 (2)

Katie O’Callaghan
Brand Management and Marketing, Nike

Amazon Echo

Entertaining for the viewers, purposeful for the brand – that combination is what I define as a winning Super Bowl commercial. Many try, but most fail to do both. It’s an incredible challenge – and Amazon, in my opinion, hit a homerun on its very first try! The spot, “Party”, promoted Amazon’s latest new gadget, the Echo.
As a consumer, I was entertained. The spot was jam-packed with star power (Alec Baldwin, Dan Marino, Missy Elliott, and Jason Schwartzman) that caught and kept your attention through exchanges of witty banter and playful insults. And, as a marketer, I was satisfied – as the banter perfectly framed a demonstration of everything that the Echo could do (play music, answer questions, control lights). Amazon found that sweet spot – fun and entertaining, yet purposeful and effective in laying out the “reasons to buy”.

Further, the decision to shine a spotlight on the Echo was a smart one. The Echo is a sleeping giant – it serves a purpose and, according to consumer reviews, it serves that purpose well. Yet, surprisingly, the two-year old product is relatively unknown to most Americans. Or, at least, it was… This “home assistant” category screams with potential for explosive growth and, with this boost in awareness, Amazon will undoubtedly be a key player in its development.


ryanville_3Car commercials are boring and predictable. You know the ones I’m talking about – there’s a car, it’s driving, there’s a city road or a dirt mountain path, and it just drives and drives while a deep male voice drones on and on in the background about product features. How in the world does that sell a car?! I don’t know. What I do know is that my disappointment in that standard is why I was so excited to see the Hyundai commercials debuted at the Super Bowl.

Two things stood out:
(1) Job-to-be-done advertising lens: Unlike many car commercials that advertise the car as a whole, Hyundai used each of its three spots to (comically) focus on one specific relatable pain point and then offered its car as “the solution” to that pain. The brand appealed to those thinking “I need a car that…” (i) can keep track of my teenage kids while they’re out (“First Date” spot; feature: car finder), (ii) can keep its eyes on the road when mine aren’t (“Ryanville”; feature: pedestrian detection), and (iii) can remote start using the sound of my voice (“The Chase”; feature: voice-activated remote start). It was a powerful approach with potential to spark much higher levels of consumer interest and purchase intent than the typical (arguably boring!) car commercial format.
(2) Entertaining & Shareable: They were fun-to-watch and viral in their own right, with two of the three jumping to the upper ranks of Facebook viewing and sharing. Well done, Hyundai.

Katie O’Callaghan (HBS ’16) is a brand management and marketing professional with over 6 years of experience in the industry. She has worked for well-known brands including Nike, Bud Light, and Michelob Ultra and has plans to join the Microsoft Xbox brand team post-graduation.


Anirban Datta Gupta
Senior Assistant Brand Manager, P&G

Shock Top

AB InBev knows a thing or two about making stellar Super Bowl ads. Budweiser ads have almost become synonymous with Super Bowl. They did a solid job with Budweiser again this year, but a lot of the post-Super Bowl ad chatter has been about the spot for Shock Top, their new beer. Having consumed copious amounts of it before, during and after Super Bowl, I can confidently tell you that if you’re a fan of Belgian-style wheat ales (think Harpoon UFO, or Allagash White), then you’re going to enjoy Shock Top. Back to the ad – this simple spot features T.J. Miller (from HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’) and the ‘Wedgehead’ beer tap brand mascot trading insults. This ad is a classic example of effective brand-building, with Shock Top and its distinctive mascot front and center.

At this nascent stage of Shock Top’s existence, AB InBev is clearly trying to drive brand awareness and equity, and the spot achieves just that. My prediction is that the sales numbers for Shock Top have jumped up significantly post Super Bowl. What better way to measure a successful Super Bowl ad? Finally, for a masterclass on how to produce long-form content, definitely check out Shock Top’s 5 minute “Unfiltered Big Game Ad Review” which was released online the day after Super Bowl, again featuring T.J. Miller and the Shock Top ‘Wedgehead’, who are reviewing other Super Bowl ads this time around. Hats off to Anomaly Toronto for a job well done.


buick-ad_0No Super Bowl is complete without an epic Car ad. Unfortunately for Buick, their car ad is not epic. To launch its 2016 Cascada Convertible, Buick’s spot features the stunning Emily Ratajkowski and Odell Beckham Jr. (OBJ) at a wedding. Emily Ratajkowski channeling OBJ to catch the bride’s bouquet is perhaps the only positive thing about the ad. Buick seems to be trying to rectify its image of being old and boring. But this ad’s execution achieves exactly the opposite of that, since the self-deprecating humor (“That convertible’s a Buick?”) falls flat, and what remains is a familiar, indifferent feeling towards Buick.

You would think that in a car ad, there should be some mention about the car’s features. Guess what – not a single word on product superiority, or new features. Why is the viewer supposed to care about this car or go and check it out? Featuring celebrities might positively increase the image and credibility of the brand, but to do so, it needs to be backed up by a reason to believe what the celebrity is endorsing. I would be very surprised if this spot drove any significant sales for the 2016 Buick Cascada. Leo Burnett Detroit can learn a thing or two about product superiority advertising from Toyota’s brilliant “The Longest Chase” Super Bowl ad.

Anirban Datta Gupta (HBS ’17) is a brand management and product marketing professional with over 5 years of experience in the industry. Prior to HBS, he worked for Procter & Gamble, and was based in Singapore.


Sinem Ormeci
Assistant Brand Manager, Unilever

Mini Cooper

maxresdefault (4)This year, on the more serious Super Bowl Ads side, Mini Cooper’s #DefyLabels was the most impressive one. In the ad, the stereotyped celebrities including Serena Williams, Abby Wambach and Harvey Kaitel put forth Mini Cooper’s prevalent labels. These celebrities also share their stories of how they overcame those labels on Mini Cooper’s YouTube Channel.
More brands are trying to show that they stand for a social cause. For brands that choose this route, relevancy plays a key role to have a truly authentic connection with their consumers. Mini Cooper, which possibly has more unique labels than any other automobile brand, is the perfect fit for this cause.
The ad is very effective on its own, and I’m very curious how Mini Cooper will continue its campaign to encourage people to defy their labels, and let them share their own stories.



An actor, a former NFL player and a singer combined with some jokes and music used to be a great formula for a Super Bowl Ad, but it shouldn’t have been the grand entrance of Amazon to Super Bowl arena for its revolutionary product, Echo. We see very little detail from what should have been the star of the ad, and it’s obscured by the abundance of the celebrities. My view is that Amazon has missed a great opportunity to show how Echo differentiates itself from other ‘intelligent assistants’, which may result in a lack of reason to believe.
PS: I admired Jeep for its bold move on airing a vertical format ad during Super Bowl, where millions are watching on a horizontal TV screen. “Portraits” is a revolutionary ad that will hopefully pave the way to other brands for focusing more on mobile experience.


Elian Pres-Gurwits
Entrepreneur & Former President & Managing Director of Glossybox


maxresdefault (3)Amazon aims to create wantedness for its top-selling hardware experiment, the personal assistant “Echo”. In a nutshell: It’s relatable. After conquering the smart homes of technology enthusiasts, Amazon is going after the mass consumer – if Alexa can help Dan Marino and Alec Baldwin to plan better Super bowl parties, it might enrich all of our lives. What can be improved? Amazon could show that Echo is truly artificially intelligent and leave viewers with a “wow effect”. I believe that by leveraging the legitimacy of Alec Baldwin and Dan Marino via established mass media outlets, Amazon will be able to enhance Echo’s desirability in the eyes of more traditional tech consumers.

Death Wish Coffee

Death Wish Coffee is using the precious airtime to be memorized as the world’s strongest coffee. I liked the well-differentiated positioning message, emotional appeal to target consumers and professional execution. Death Wish Coffee could have done more to fully leverage this unique opportunity by converting the follow-up traffic to its online channels into leads or directly into new sales. For instance, the coffee-maker missed to provide the online visitor with a discounted first-time trial offer as well as any incentive to enter his or her email (e.g. the rare chance to win an exciting prize…). While I believe that Death Wish Coffee’s brand awareness will benefit from the huge reach, I doubt that a substantial number of targeted viewers will turn into paying customers. The coffee’s proud price of $19.99 discourages an impulsive online purchase and the company will likely lack the required capabilities to effectively and timely re-engage consumers in order to capitalize on the acquired mindshare.

Elian Pres-Gurwits (HBS ’17) is an entrepreneur with over 4 years of experience in the consumer space. Before HBS, Elian was building up Glossybox, a luxury beauty subscription service with over 250k subscribers across 10 countries.

Wendy Lim
Brand Manager, Unilever

Death Wish Coffee

Stirring up a storm in a tea, well, coffee cup, to get viewers to remember Death Wish coffee with a storyline that is, literally about deathwish, was the main goal of the ad. The ad has a strong storyline association with an unusual coffee brand name, which was used to possibly increase its longevity by creating subsequent ad sequels. In terms of areas of improvement, this is an unexpected coffee ad that garners attention. However, product benefit and target consumers do not stand out in this ad. Overall, this ad was successful as a new player in the market by grabbing viewers’ attention with a bold brand name that will increase brand name awareness and consumer brand association.

Mountain Dew

1-mountain-dew-super-bowl-ad-puppy-monkey-babyMountain Dew was trying to achieve the crazy effect of combining three things into one by using “puppy, monkey, baby” as a proxy for 3 product benefits. “Puppy, monkey, baby” is still ringing in my head thirty seconds after the thirty-second ad. The incredulous image of three things combined drives home the message of a 3-in-1 beverage. In terms of areas of improvement, it looks like this drink is for guys only. Why wouldn’t Mountain Dew feature girls in the ad as well?

Wendy Lim (HBS ’17) is a brand management and marketing professional with 4 years experience in the CPG industry, focusing on emerging markets in Southeast Asia. She was part of the Unilever Leadership Development program and has worked for brands such as Knorr, Hellmann’s, Lipton and OMO as well as launched the first regional strategy targeting the Hotel Channel in South East Asia to double business growth.