The Super Bowl Winner? Mr. Clean, Say MBAs

Kellogg students reacting to an ad during the Super Bowl Ad Review.

Imagine you’re a brand manager on Super Bowl Sunday. You’ve just ponied up $5 million for a 30-second spot. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Your CEO expects your ad to drive a revenue wave that kickstarts the year. Your boss pictures picking up a Clio. Of course, your creative team dreams of their ad looping endlessly on social media.

You’re not so optimistic, however. Your precious ad is facing off against the best creative in the world.  The expectations are staggering — and so, too, are the risks. For every ad that inspires pundit praise and Harvard case studies, there are 20 others that are quickly forgotten. Let’s not forget those miscalculations that can unleash the fury of 100 million consumers upon your brand.


How do you know that your ad will break through? The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University has an answer. It’s called the ADPLAN framework and it is designed to injecting greater objectivity and consistency into evaluating ads.

ADPLAN is an acronym for Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification, and Net Equity. It is a model taught by Derek Rucker, co-chair of faculty research and a professor of marketing at Kellogg, as part of the school’s core Advertising Strategy course. On the surface, it is tempting to declare an ad to be a success based on hearty laughs, dazzling images, or evocative storytelling. Step back from the initial response and there are several variables to weigh. Did consumers remember the actual brand…or just the associations and sentiments that it roused? Was the messaging in line with audience expectations of the brand? Most important, does the ad stir some form of action?

In other words, how well does it achieve its goals?

The ADPLAN framework was designed over a dozen years ago at Kellogg. For Rucker, the tool’s strength stems from the academic research and rigor behind it. “There are academic papers that support each element as being important in the process of persuasion, from memory models to social psychological research. All of these elements have some academic bite to them.”

The real benefit, however, is that the framework offers a logical starting point to discuss where ads shine…and where they fall short. “I’ve had conversations with students about ads they produced when we talk about strengths. There is always part of the framework that gets easily folded in. It is academically grounded, but practically relevant. It gives my students and I a common language.”


You won’t find a better venue to separate good ads from bad ones than the Super Bowl. Think of the Super Bowl as advertising’s answer to a fashion show, with Budweiser, Honda, and Wix voguing down the digital runway in their creative best. It has something for everyone: dashing celebrities, daring stunts, hilarious hijinks, and world-weary pups. From sappy and sensual to contemplative and crass, advertisers push the envelope to pitch suds, shows, and subcompacts.

Derek Rucker reviewing the ADPLAN framework

This year, T-Mobile went fifty shades to expose the blessed pain wrought by bad contracts; Spuds Mackenzie returned from the grave to escort his reluctant owner to a party (with Budweiser in tow); and Honda delved into yearbook pictures to remind viewers to chase their dreams (and avoid baby blue suits). Forget TiVo, let alone our conditioned response to pooh-pooh pitches. Super Bowl ads complement the game as much as support it. They attract viewers who would otherwise be agnostic towards football. They provide fodder for conversation as fans wait to go gaga while the score is run up to 21-3. In a polarized era replete with Twitter tantrums and manic protests, such ads are a welcome suspension of reality.

This year, advertisers coughed up $5 million dollars for a 30-second spot. That’s up nearly $1 million dollars in just the past three years! So why pay so much when you’d only drop $500,000 for a premier prime time slot? Do the math: The Super Bowl is the only time when you can you pull 111.3 million viewers, as Super Bowl LI did. Fact is, the Super Bowl is the world’s largest tailgate, where friends gather to chow, chat, and cheer. In today’s segmented climate, no advertiser can even dream of reaching even a fifth of that audience anywhere else!


This winner-takes-all atmosphere, which draws the best creative, is the perfect environment for Kellogg to test out the ADPLAN framework. That’s why the school holds an annual Super Bowl Review for its students.  At this year’s event, 60 members of the school’s Marketing Club gathered together for their own Super Bowl party. While there was plenty of food and refreshments, you didn’t find the students cheering Ryan or jeering Brady. Instead, over four hours, the class assessed every ad against the ADPLAN framework. Operating at rapid fire pace of viewers, students would quickly grade an ad using a scale from A through F. Then, they would shift to the next spot as it started to roll. After the game, students turned in their grades, which were tabulated and averaged by advertiser. From there, Rucker and his teaching partner, Tim Calkins, held a group discussion to explore why some ads worked and others fell short — always referring back to ADPLAN for guidance.

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