Kellogg MBAs Pick The Real Winners Of The Super Bowl

Derek Rucker reviewing the ADPLAN framework

Derek Rucker reviewing the ADPLAN framework with students

The Broncos and Panthers weren’t the only teams looking to make a statement on Sunday. Once the Super Bowl pauses for a commercial, that’s when the real gladiator games begin. Like the game itself, the ads are a mixture of breakout plays, sensory blitzes, and head-scratching decisions.

In fact, football is a perfect metaphor for its advertising counterpart. Take a risk that blows up and critics will savage your brand for a few days, if not longer.Play it safe and work slow-and-steady and viewers will forget you as quickly as the next spot runs.


So why do some ads success where others fail? That’s a question that students at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University have been answering for 11 years. Each year, the school hosts its Super Bowl Ad Review, which applies a research-grounded set of criteria to measure each ad’s effectiveness.

Forget a party full of rah-rahs and chit-chat. The Ad Review is a serious affair in which 65 students huddle over their laptops as the ads run. “There’s no alcohol at all,” says Kellogg marketing professor Derek Rucker, who runs the review alongside Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at the school. “We’re not really watching the game at all. We’re there to watch the ads and learn about the framework and how it applies.”




That framework is called ADPLAN, which stands for Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification, and Net Equity. Taught in the core Advertising Strategy course, this six point criteria places fundamentals like brand message and positioning over stunning graphics and punch lines. Forget emotion. This is a scientific exercise designed to pinpoint those brands whose strategy, creative, and execution will ultimately generate the best return.


Grading every Super Bowl ad – over four hours no less – is both an exhaustive and exhausting project. Think of the Ad Review as Kellogg’s experiential learning philosophy at its finest. Instead of spending ten minutes in a deep dive dissection of an ad, students operate at the speed of consumer watching the ads as they run.

Courtney Firestone

Courtney Firestone

For Courtney Firestone, a first-year who previously worked in consulting, the review was almost a blur. “You’re doing it in real time, which makes it high pressure in terms of having to evaluate each of these ads with a very quick turnaround time,” she explains. “That’s especially true with multiple ads airing back-to-back. [At the same time], you have to give each spot a letter grade between A-F in real time as you’re getting a first impression of the ad….[It] was very challenging, but fun at the same time.”

After the game, results are tabulated, with advertisers ranked as a whole, not by individual spots. From there, Rucker and Calkins hold a debrief with students, where students discuss why many ads earned their marks, always referring back to ADPLAN in their analysis.

“They get to look at it as a whole and [dig down into] the reason that an ad didn’t do well, such as a linkage problem…They’re getting away from ‘This is a good or a bad ad to ‘This is how this ad is strategically sound in these areas and this is how it’s strategically weak in these areas.’” In other words, students experience a live case study of how advertisers can whiff on the fundamentals – and the tragic consequences that follow.


Bottom line: The ADPLAN framework injects objectivity into the analysis and consistency into the process. As a result, there are rarely any wide gaps between how students grade the same ads. And that’s a testament to the review’s structure and ADPLAN’s effectiveness. “Most of the time,” Rucker notes, “I’m aligned with the students. They’re getting the framework. They’re asking the right questions.”

Still, ADPLAN is not a panacea for marketers, Rucker concedes. “Like any tool or framework, it’s only as good as the user. If you don’t practice how to use it, you’ll never get it right. So this is a great venue where you get a rapid repeat of the framework you’ve learned… It forces you to get real good at this.”

For Firestone, the Ad Review was a way to apply what she had been learning in class. However, it also gave her an appreciation for the challenges involved in creating an effective ad campaign. “There are real high expectations for these ads,” she points out. “It’s very hard to come up with very strong, distinctive ads that are effective and show a clear product benefit.”

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