For a winning ad at the Super Bowl: Less shock and more sophisticated storyline

Jennifer Edson Escalas (Owen Graduate School of Management)

Unlike any other television event, when it comes to the Super Bowl, the commercials are as much a part of the entertainment as the game. And though sensationalism and celebrity can create a splash, Vanderbilt research shows a storyline that really makes the viewer pay attention may score the highest.

One of the most anticipated commercials of the 2012 Super Bowl is the follow up to last year’s Volkswagen “Young Darth Vader” ad. In the original VW ad, a boy dressed as Darth Vader tries to use ‘The Force’ to raise inanimate household items. He ultimately directs his superhuman powers to a VW Passat and the car actually lights up and starts. Only then do we see Dad pointing the key fob from the kitchen window as he offers a brief, mischievous grin.

Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management marketing professor Jennifer Edson Escalas says part of the reason the ad worked so well lies in its narrative complexity and its ability to draw the audience into the story and the characters.


A recent study by Escalas and Jesper Nielsen, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that marketing narratives are more likely to trigger a positive response when following the storyline requires some mental work.

“[rquote]The more effort viewers put into the storyline, the more involved they are in it and hopefully the product or brand[/rquote],” said Escalas.

That finding adds a critical twist to an earlier, well-established phenomenon that shows when deciding on an option requires a lot of effort – such as comparing a product’s attributes – consumers may be turned off and either select a different option or defer the decision.

“Under conditions of narrative processing, these feelings of difficulty will lead to more positive evaluations of the advertised brand through a deeper immersion into the narrative,” Escalas and Nielsen write. “That is, consumers will evaluate the brand more positively when processing feels difficult.”

Escalas explains this seeming paradox with the concept of narrative transportation, or getting drawn into a story. As narrative transportation increases, so too does a person’s emotional responses. The result: more transportation leads to more persuasion.


The success of VW’s first ad has viewers greatly anticipating the sequel. They even released a teaser, “The Bark Side.” Escalas says continuing storylines in advertising can have strong results, if done correctly, especially now that advertisers have multiple mediums to work with.

“In the world of social media, marketers have to work harder than ever to provide interesting content to viewers on an ongoing basis. A serialized advertising campaign can unfold episodically, engaging consumers as each new commercial is unveiled. This can draw people online to follow the campaign and can guide marketers content on the internet,” said Escalas.


Escalas says with the popularity of social media, marketers are trying to create ‘brand evangelists’ – consumers who become extremely involved with the brand, follow it online, and recommend the brand to their friends.

“By linking Volkswagen to an extremely popular, often fanatical, franchise such as Star Wars, Volkswagen can tap into already existing associations. These favorable attitudes may spill over onto Volkswagen, and with the proper nurturing, convert slightly interested consumers into engaged, loyal consumers of their campaign and eventually their automobiles,” said Escalas.


While Super Bowl ads often beat the game itself for entertainment value, they wouldn’t be effective any other day of the year.

“Companies have very different objectives for the ads created for Super Bowl Sunday, said Escalas. “Not only are those ads designed to appeal to what may be the widest audience of any television event, but they are judged by consumers and outside media such as Advertising Age primarily on their creativity and humor.”

Escalas says the advertisements companies produce for the other 364 days of the year are created to appeal to a very narrow segment of the population – to the target market for the product or service being advertised. The objectives for these non-Super Bowl ads are to persuade the target customer and to get that audience to like, remember and purchase the product.