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Couch Testing: Pete Vonderlinn’s Super Bowl Hits and Misses

How the Partners + Napier ECD utilizes his Super Bowl party to test ad effectiveness

Every year my wife and I host a big Super Bowl party that packs 35 humans, aged 5 months to 50 years, into our living room. This makes hearing the spots, let alone reviewing them, harder than catching Russell Wilson behind the line of scrimmage. 

So this year, I cheated. I watched every spot before the big game and came up with my top five before the coin was even flipped. But to keep myself honest, I decided I would observe the reaction of my 35 guests to see if my professional opinion of the spots matched those of the cross section of American consumers crunching Doritos on my sofa.

I batted .600. (I know, I know, this is a football game, but batting average is far easier to compute than passer rating). Here are my hits and misses:

HIT: Snickers ‘The Brady Bunch’

I nearly fell off of the couch when I watched this spot and saw everyone in the room old enough to know Mike and Carol do the same. Kudos to BBDO NY for putting a delightfully weirder twist on the usual delightful weirdness of the ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’ creative premise. 

MISS: McDonald’s ‘Pay With Lovin’’

I’ve been impressed with McDonald’s recent work supporting their ‘Choose Lovin’’ tagline and felt this was a homerun (again with the baseball, sorry). How smart to kick off a promotion about love during the Super Bowl, just as we’re all beginning to think about Valentine’s Day? My guests’ reaction… “How weird”. Sorry, Mickey D’s.

HIT: Always ‘Like a Girl’

As the father of two athletic daughters, the emotion and truth in this spot had me from frame one. I observed the dozen women in my living room watching this spot and it strongly connected with them too. Smiles all around and I watched one mom hug her little girl after the spot ended. Awesome. Bonus points to Leo Burnett and their production team for opening with the awkward gestures that instantly grabbed your attention.

MISS: Carnival ‘Come Back to the Sea’

I’ve always assumed Carnival was a floating circus of conga lines and college co-eds daring each other to eat the worm. Not anymore. Hearing JFK’s moving words over that beautiful cinematography convinced me that the folks at Carnival have a higher nautical calling. And that made me respect them. The group watching? Not so much. The heady spot sailed right by them. 

HIT: BMW i3 ‘Newfangled Idea’

BMW Financial Services is a client of Partners + Napier, so I felt conflicted putting this in my top five. But I had to after watching a room of people not only laugh out loud at Katie Couric’s hair, but also react exactly how BMW intended – with total curiosity about the BMW i3. ‘Is that BMW’s electric car? Cool.’ ‘Look how the doors open!’ ‘What does it cost?’ Imagine their reaction if gas prices were still near $4.00 a gallon.

Our annual Super Bowl fest is a great gut check for me and always makes me consider how I creatively direct spots throughout the year. It shows that no matter how much craft you think your spot has, no matter how many rounds of testing you put it through, you don’t really know how consumers are going to react until the ultimate test: the couch test. That real-time exposure when people are a few beers in, watching the spots in between bites of stuffed pretzel crust pizza, and your $150,000-per-second’s worth of airtime comes on screen. 

To all of the brands and agencies who broke through, well done. Take the team on a well-deserved Carnival Cruise.

Pete Vonderlinn is Executive Creative Director at Partners + Napier Rochester 

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