Are you having a laugh? A scientific (and subjective) review of the Super Bowl’s comedic ads

—Brainsights’ Kevin Keane and humorist Sandy Marshall tackle four of the big game’s funny spots—

Each year, the Super Bowl offers brands the biggest viewing audience, the toughest crowd, the highest stakes, and a rare opportunity to become part of the pop culture zeitgeist.

And though spots like Apple’s 1984 became legendary thanks to the NFL’s big game, others end up in the Annual Hall of Cringe. So what makes a Super Bowl ad resonate? Certainly one of the most popular strategies is to use humour, and that was the case this year.

But as everyone in advertising knows, the execution of a funny idea is all important—a tricky mix of art and science. In that light, we decided to review some of spots from the recent Super Bowl from both angles. It’s comedy meets neuroscience.

Kevin Keane is the founder and CEO of Brainsights, a neuroscience data and technology company. His firm showed all of the Super Bowl ads to more than 160 adults in the U.S. and measured their brain waves every two milliseconds using electroencephalograms (EEG). The devices measure the audience’s instantaneous levels of attention, emotional connection (resonance) and memorability, to investigate moment-by-moment impact of the spots.

And Sandy Marshall thinks he’s funny.*

The pair considered the structures, devices and tactics for four ads, all of which deployed a range of different tactics around comedy.

Below is the second-by-second chart of attention, emotional connection and encoding to memory that Brainsights’ tracks, indexed for each spot versus the benchmark (0%) created from all 2020 Super Bowl spots.

This provides a clear picture of how each metric is changing for audiences as they watched each ad, and how they compare to all Super Bowl ads.

“Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” from Little Caesars

Kevin: The strength of the opening 15 seconds hooks viewers for the ride: Little Caesar’s delivered to a home; the customer saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread, cut to the Sliced Bread Company and the moment when a subordinate reports to Rainn Wilson that “we have a problem.”

The quick-cut montage style tends to diminish memory encoding, so it’s no surprise to see memorability suppressed as audiences begin to coast. The first 15 seconds deliver 62% greater memory encoding than the final 45 seconds.

The fact that much of this spot from the 15-second mark hovers around benchmark is probably an indication of its being polarizing—fans of Rainn Wilson will lean in, while those who are unfamiliar will not be as engaged.

Attention remains at or above benchmark for most of the time given this frenetic pace and the changing visuals to keep audiences engaged.

The final moment that re-visits the delivery and brings the story full circle ticks above benchmark for all three metrics, which is clearly positive for the brand.

Sandy: Comedically, this offers a fun premise with a tight structure. The phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” is old, but the brand found a new way to play with it: “If Little Caesars is the best thing since sliced bread, what happens to sliced bread?”

The ad incorporates a meta-creative-pitch scenario, with teams presenting absurd bread-marketing concepts. The Office‘s Rainn Wilson helps us trust the premise; fans of show want to see Rainn Wilson playing a funny character in an office environment, so we’re on board for the next 45 seconds. And to Kevin’s point: a recognizable character was critical for this ad.

Thankfully, the creative team took the idea to ridiculous extremes through sliced-bread-breaking-news, an emergency sliced-bread investor meeting, and a fun payoff: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Many of the moments in the montage feel spontaneous—and some were likely improvised by the brilliant Wilson—which make the spot fun and electric. And overall, the spot successfully encoded the most important message: Little Caesar’s is now the best thing since sliced bread.


“Groundhog Day” from Jeep

Sandy: Of all the spots we’re reviewing, this obviously wins in terms of audience reach and lovability.

Watching Bill Murray and the cast of Groundhog Day recreate their classic film will bring a smile to most faces. The spot treats a high concept idea with respect, maintains the “normal person in a weird world” structure, and is smart enough to cast the hero product as a secondary character within Phil Connor’s personal hell (and accidental source of fun).

The execution is perfect, and the fact that the ad was pitched and green-lit… gives one new appreciation for last-minute opportunities and insane deadlines. My one wish for this gem would be to mine outtakes for pre-roll content or shorter broadcast spots, underpinning Jeep’s brand legacy and timeless-since-World-War-II-durability. After all: like Groundhog Day, what’s old is new again.

Kevin: This one was definitely the best performing of the four we looked at. Jeep taps into nostalgia with a twist, using the familiarity of Groundhog Day and evolving that storyline by asking the question: What would Groundhog Day be like with a Jeep?

Audience emotional connection is well above Super Bowl benchmarks for most of the spot. In fact, this spot is the second-highest performer overall for average connection—a measure of the audience’s emotional intensity in response to the ad.

Importantly, this doesn’t come at the expense of memorability, which can be the case in ads featuring a hit song. But that song supports the story instead of leads it, and as such enhances ad performance. Jeep created a winner here, and you can see that with strong neural engagement throughout the spot.

“Jason Momoa Super Bowl Commercial 2020” from Rocket Mortgage

Sandy: Stunt casting is nothing new for Super Bowl advertising, and this is one of two spots with superhero actors taking different approaches to playing comedy (see below).

Surprising as it might sound, humour works for a dry category like financial services. Mortgages are boring, so brands need to find unique ways to talk about them, and being funny is a great way to deliver a differentiated message.

In this case, the premise is clear: comfortable mortgages enable Jason Momoa to chill in the comfort of his own home in a ridiculous way. Though a better premise might have been: comfortable mortgages enable the guy who plays Aquaman to chill in the comfort of his own home.

Still, the ad is fun and surprising once you see Jason Momoa shed the Aquaman body—and then run out of gas. Some unexplored comedic possibilities here: what happens when Jason Momoa actually tries to water plants in the backyard? Or start a fire on the barbeque, a la Khal Drago from Game of Thrones? Quick bursts following the original set-up might help keep viewers engaged, as was the case with Little Caesars.

Kevin: This is the weakest of the four we looked at—you can see this by the sub-benchmark curves for all metrics. But there’s still something very interesting to learn here.

There’s initial engagement with Jason Momoa, but emotional connection struggles even to reach benchmark for American viewers. While the theme of “home as sanctuary,” where “one can be oneself” is reasonably clear, the data suggests that people aren’t connecting that to Jason Momoa’s behavior.

Indeed, the data suggests confusion with this behaviour, with audience attention tracking consistently above connection for roughly the first half of the spot.

The first moment of above-average connection comes in the middle, when Momoa lifts his shirt up to pull off his abdominals, a moment that surely disappoints as we see both attention and connection sink rapidly following this moment.

However, the product message lands reasonably well considering it’s recovering from considerable depths (around 50 seconds), though attention doesn’t quite hit the heights of encoding and connection. It may be that people are wondering: Who’s responsible for this weirdness?

“Smaht Pahk” from Hyundai

Sandy: I’ve spotted a casting trend here: Hyundai’s ad blends The Office (John Krasinski) and a superhero (Captain America’s Chris Evans) alongside SNL’s ever-hilarious Rachel Dratch.

The idea of taking a single joke and (literally) driving it into the ground works perfectly. Not only is the cast from Massachusetts—adding legitimacy to the heavy Boston accents—but the spot feels like a longer piece that’s just getting started.

It’s a great example of the power of a single, simple idea—one that probably made people laugh in a writer’s room, though it’s never easy to get dozens of people aligned around a focused and precise premise. The payoff? Wanting to see more. If you watch this and say “Smaht Pahk” afterwards, their job is done.

Kevin: From an audience perspective, “Smaht Pahk” follows a similar neural engagement pattern to Little Caesar’s: very strong start thanks to the introduction of a familiar moment of suspense —how’s he going to park that car?—and characters.

But following a strong opening, the engagement curve sinks to around benchmark. The initial demonstration of the key product feature shows average performance. The flurry of Boston references (starting from about 29 seconds) sends encoding to its lowest levels, but then the mention of “un-pahking” the car—followed by the product demonstration—leads to a minor recovery (about 37 seconds).

The big difference for Hyundai versus Little Caesar’s is that the final moments for Hyundai (from 53 seconds) shoot up well over benchmarks, as the brand returns to the key product message, which lands well, and the characters to deliver the closing joke.

Closing thoughts

Kevin: What I find particularly interesting about these ads is that the brand/product plays a meaningful role in each, whether as adversary (Little Caesar’s) or enabler (Rocket Mortgage, Jeep, Hyundai).

Jeep, in the minds of Americans, is the runaway winner; it leans heavily on the established equity of the Groundhog Day film which taps into something special for Americans.

Little Caesar’s and Hyundai have to work harder in their ad, introducing new product features in unique and entertaining ways. The result is a bit more U-shaped, with strong beginnings and ends, but nonetheless effective at leveraging comedy to support the brand.

Sandy: Big ups to brands for taking swings when the pressure is on: there’s nothing easy or smooth about delivering a national spot for the Super Bowl. And the research shows that a simple concept—no matter how good the idea is—won’t pay off unless it goes somewhere.

The effect of different styles and tones depend on the brand and audience, Super Bowl ads are often a trendsetter for the industry so don’t be surprised to see more superheroes, more offbeat comedy icons, and (weather permitting) cars as characters in 2020.

* Sandy Marshall is actually an actor, partner at Norman Howard and regular humour columnist for The Message. Kevin Keane is the founder and CEO at Brainsights.