How Kellogg MBAs Pick Super Bowl Ad Winners

The Super Bowl Ad Review takes place at Kellogg during the night of the Super Bowl.

The Super Bowl doesn’t just crown the best football team. When the gridiron action breaks, there’s an even grander rivalry underway. It’s the Super Bowl ads – a high tech, winner-take-all version of your local corporate games (sans the sack races). Think of it as the ‘Branding Bowl,’ where Anheuser Busch, Hulu, and T-Mobile are plunking down $5.25 million dollars for 30 seconds of precious air time. Make a splash and your brand will turn into a cultural cornerstone. Flub up and expect to take your licks from media mavens and cranky consumers across social media…if you’re even remembered at all.

Last year, the Super Bowl drew 103.4 million people. That’s some serious buying power. Problem is, these 30 seconds are every brand’s Super Bowl, a one-down Hail Mary to an audience craving “Where’s the Beef” punchlines and “God Made a Farmer” inspiration. In this game-within-a-game, brands win by differentiating themselves enough to be remembered – and driving a wave of tweets, posts, water cooler deconstruction, and free media along the way.


What makes a great Super Bowl ad? Well, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has success-and-failure down to a science…literally. Introducing the ADPLAN framework, a research-based tool that replaces gut instinct with psychological precision. ADPLAN is broken down into six dimensions: Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification, and Net Equity. Not surprisingly, an ad must hit on each dimension to capture mindshare and produce a positive response.

ADPLAN Framework

For Derek Rucker, co-chair of faculty research and a professor of marketing at Kellogg, the ADPLAN framework is designed to harness momentary sentiments into a system that fosters objectivity and consistency. Think of it as a means to step back and pose key questions, such as whether the creative aligned with audience expectations or if the messaging drove action.

“With the framework, we’re not teaching students how to do the creative part of advertising,” says Rucker in a January interview with P&Q. “We’re teaching them to be strategists, to think critically about whether something is wrong or right.”


To truly master any framework, students need repetition. That’s what Kellogg delivers in spades with its annual Super Bowl Ad Review. Think of the Review as Kellogg’s answer to the traditional Super Bowl party. The difference? There’s no alcohol served and the ads take center stage over the game. Come 5:30 on Sunday – if not before – over 60 Kellogg MBA students pack a room, seated in circles to evaluate ads on a big screen. This is no everyday ad seminar, where students spend 20 minutes debating the minutiae of advertising etiquette. Instead, they’re dissecting ads at the speed of the consumer – warp speed. As each ad flashes by, students use the ADPLAN framework to grade them using an A-F grading system. After the game ends, students submit their grades, which are tabulated and averaged.

From there, Rucker and his teaching partner, Tim Calkins, hold a “debrief.” That’s where the real fun begins. Here, students discuss their grades, always referring back to the ADPLAN framework to justify their decisions. In other words, the Super Bowl Ad Review simulates the brand manager role for students, giving them a common language on where ads excel or lose their way.

“We’re really excited here at Kellogg to see how brands do and have conversations around it,” Rucker adds. “At the end of the day, it is not only a fun event, but people will walk away with, ‘Now I remember that ad that missed the mark. Maybe five years down the road, I’ll be on a position where I’m on a team and we’re thinking about doing a Super Bowl spot. I’m going to make sure that I don’t make those same mistakes.”

Recently, P&Q sat down with Rucker to take a deep dive into the ADPLAN framework and what makes Kellogg’s Super Bowl Ad Review such a signature event in the MBA program. That’s just the beginning, as Rucker shares his 2019 predictions and the biggest mistakes advertisers make in this exclusive Q&A.

P&Q: In Kellogg’s Super Bowl Ad Review, you apply a six-point frame called ADPLAN (Attention, Distinction, Positioning, Linkage, Amplification and Net Equity). In fact, you’ve been using it for 15 years. Tell us a little about this framework and how its consistency makes it so universal and able to stand the test of time?

DR: The framework has its foundation basis in academic research. For over 50 years, we’ve had cognitive and social psychologists studying how the human mind works. What we’ve done with our framework is to use those insights to say, ‘What are some logical questions that you as a strategist should ask?’

Derek Rucker reviewing the ADPLAN framework

With the framework, we’re not teaching students how to do the creative part of advertising. Hats off to agencies – that’s a tough thing to do. We’re teaching them to be strategists, to think critically about whether something is wrong or right. What ADPLAN does is that this is a series of academic concepts and findings that can be used to understand the success or potential failure of advertising execution. It is the academically rich research that we are grounded in that gives us the basis [to evaluate].

So why does it hold up over time? The answer there is that it follows the way the human mind works. Although the mind searches through information in new forms like digital or social media, it is still processing it in very similar ways. We still form beliefs about a brand and we act on those beliefs. So there are elements of the framework that basically tap into fundamental human motives and ways of thinking that haven’t evolved. That’s why understanding the strategic criteria remains as useful now as it was 15 years ago when we started the Super Bowl Ad Review. I predict that in 15 years from now, we’ll still be continuing with the framework.

P&Q: What are some of the universal human truths that ADPLAN gets to when it comes to human reactions to advertising and the success factors inherent to it?

DR: I’ll share two of my favorite ones. The first one is a recognition that people are sensitive to brand differentiation. One part of ADPLAN is, ‘What is the brand’s positioning?’ ‘What does it stand for?’ ‘How is it different than other brands?’ When making decisions, a lot of consumers – if not all consumers – look for differences to help them choose between what to buy. What ADPLAN says is, ‘Do you have a difference to stand on?’ If you’re like everyone, you’re going to simply get eaten up. What you’ll see the best brands do this year is that they just don’t create an entertaining ad. They create an ad that has a brand message behind it and creates a desire with consumers to interact with it

The second part – and maybe my favorite insight – is that it’s not about what communications say, but what the consumer takes away from the communication. We call this Amplification – and here is this idea in its simplest form. It doesn’t matter if you and I are trying to say our product is great. What matters is if our consumer reacts favorably to it. What you’re going to see is an ad might miss the mark because consumers don’t like it. In fact, they don’t like it to such degree that they will actively say they will not use the product.

Why would advertisers ever get this wrong? Why would they ever produce an ad, especially at Super Bowl cost, that would distance or push away the consumer? One of the answers to this is that a brand didn’t focus properly on how they would react. They focused on something else, such as their affinity for the creative process or your liking of the ad, but not the consumer.

Those are two examples where if you hold true to the brand, you will set yourself up for success. We will see brands that fail to do those simple things.

P&Q: The Ad Review is designed to simulate what students will be doing as brand managers – only at an accelerated pace. Could you speak to how this is true?

DR: One thing I love about the event is that it really is focused on students. It is a very fast-paced situation. You don’t have a lot of time to think about it. If you can thrive in the Super Bowl Ad Review, it’s going to prepare you all the better to be a successful brand manager.

How does this event relate to future career success? One of the great luxuries we have at Kellogg is not only do we have fantastic MBA students, but we have executive courses where we get to teach people who are in the business already but looking to sharpen the skills or refine areas where they weren’t trained. One of the amazing things to me is that a lot of people – super intelligent individuals – when asked, ‘What do you think of this advertisement,’ they basically say “I don’t know.” That’s a very common response or “I like it, I guess.” The issue is, they don’t know how to structure their response in a strategic fashion.

What ADPLAN says is, set aside your like or dislike of an ad – or ‘I don’t know’ – and start asking strategic questions when you have doubts or uncertainty. Another thing that’s amazing about ADPLAN is it’s not just this conceptual tool. You can do tests and empirically measure how an ad performs in each dimension. It basically gives our students confidence in situations where they may be in a creative meeting and they are uncomfortable with what is pitched or you don’t think it is the right ad for your brand. This is a structured way to communicate what the concern is. I think that is not only great for the strategist to make sure they are asking the right questions, but it can also help agencies. Just saying “I don’t like it” is not helpful. It is much more powerful to say, “I have concerns about…” and then you and the agency can work through whether those are real concerns or not.

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