The Kellogg Super Bowl: Where The Ads Are More Riveting Than The Game

Kellogg marketing professors Derek Rucker (left) and Tim Calkins at last year's Super Bowl Advertising Review

Kellogg marketing professors Derek Rucker (left) and Tim Calkins at last year’s Super Bowl Advertising Review

What a difference 47 years can make!

In 1967, the first Super Bowl tickets sold for $12. Now, they cost $2000. In Super Bowl I, the winning Packers took home $15,000 a piece. Now, winning players earn $88,000. Back then, marching bands, not Bruno Mars, served as halftime entertainment. And advertising? Well, a Super Bowl spot in 1970 cost only $42,000. Now, companies pony up $4 million dollars for just 30 seconds.

For advertisers, the Super Bowl is a high stakes competition, with top brands jockeying for mindshare and publicity. That’s why this Sunday’s event—to be viewed by nearly 110 million people—provides the perfect vehicle to study advertising. At the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, they’ve turned evaluating Super Bowl ads into a science.

For the past nine years, Kellogg has hosted a Super Bowl Advertising Review that requires MBA students to assess commercial spots against a six-point strategic framework that emphasizes brand building, value propositions, and motivating purchases over flash and entertainment. Launched in 2005 by marketing professor Tim Calkins, the exercise provides students with real world experience, wiring MBA candidates to think like advertising decision makers.

“The Super Bowl event is unique because our focus is on the effectiveness of all this advertising,” says Calkins. “So we’re less concerned about creativity and humor on its own…Our focus is always on the efficacy and trying to think about, is this ultimately going to have a positive impact on business?”

The ADPLAN Framework

The event is driven by a framework called “ADPLAN,” an acronym for Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification, and Net Equity. According to Derek Rucker, a fellow marketing professor who co-leads the review with Calkins, ADPLAN is “a starting point to how you strategically evaluate an advertisement.” Using this six-point ADPLAN framework based off academic research, students can answer questions like, “Am I on the right track?” or “Does this have any big pitfalls?”

Rucker also notes that the framework goes well beyond viewer popularity surveys. Some ads, he says, can be “the brand spot I loved the most but the name I forgot the fastest.” He adds that these ads “might do real well on a popularity poll. But if I don’t remember who it is or there is no message about why this is a good product, that won’t do as well in our review. Our review is not focused on what they like the best or the least. It’s strategically, which brands did the best and which brands should strive to improve.”

What Happens at a Super Bowl Advertising Review?

Prior to the event, 40 to 50 students are hand-picked by faculty to serve as panelists. Most are marketing majors who’ve taken a graduate advertising course and studied the ADPLAN framework. Before the game starts, panelists gather at Kellogg’s Allen Center, where they walk through the rules, review the framework, and evaluate practice ads.

Once the game begins, the panel works nose-to-the-grindstone. Sure, students gorge on pizza and soda, but this is no ordinary Super Bowl party. Here, the commercials take center stage, while the game is the time for panelists to take bathroom breaks. As the spots rush by one-after-another, students score each spot with A through F grades using the ADPLAN framework. During the Super Bowl, panelists don’t discuss the grades they assign or make comparisons. Each ad stands on its own merits against how it performs against the framework.

After reviewing all the ads during the evening, the students hand in their report cards. Calkins discards the top 5 percent and bottom 5 percent of scores, taking the remaining grades and averaging them out. Calkins adds that brands like Budweiser, which run multiple spots, are scored as a whole, not according to individual spots.