Advertisers who use celebrities to drive shares of their videos are wasting their marketing budgets, according to a new report published today by Unruly. The Science of Sharing 2014 – which looks at commercials from this year’s Super Bowl to see why some performed well online and others missed the mark – found very few viewers cited the famous faces on display as a key reason why they would share the ads with their social networks. The stars were certainly out for Super Bowl 2014, with Bob Dylan, Ellen DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, The Muppets,  U2, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the cast of 90s sitcom Full House among the many celebrities used to front multi-million dollar ad campaigns.

However, despite so many celebrities on parade, online shares of ads that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl decreased by almost a third from the previous year – the first time shares of Super Bowl ads have decreased year-on-year. Meanwhile, none of the top 3 most shared ads from Super Bowl 2014 featured celebrities.

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The report – released a month before the World Cup in Brazil kicks off and as Super Bowl sponsors start planning for next year’s event – also shows how Microsoft rather than Budweiser could have walked away with the Super Bowl crown. It also highlights how poor branding meant 93 percent of people who saw Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl didn’t realize it was for Chrysler, while 4 percent thought it was an ad for rival Ford.

Report Highlights

  • Celebrities alone do not drive online ad sharing. Very few viewers cited celebrities as a key driver of why they would share an ad. This explains why none of the top three ads from this year’s Super Bowl featured celebrities. However, this is not just restricted to the Big Game. Despite brands using celebrities for many of their ads, only 13 percent of the most shared ads of all time (top 100) feature stars (source: Unruly Viral Video Chart).
  • 93 percent of people who watched Bob Dylan’s Super Bowl ad did not realize it was for Chrysler. Twelve percent of viewers thought it was an ad promoting the campaign to revitalize Detroit, 3 percent thought it was to promote America, while some 4 percent thought it was a spot for rival Ford. There’s no relationship between how much sharing across the social web a video achieves and the level of branding used. Nor does overt branding make a video less emotionally impactful.
  • Microsoft missed out. With almost 2 million shares, Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” commercial, launched on January 29, was the runaway winner of Super Bowl 2014. Yet, when Unruly tested Microsoft’s ad “Empowering” using the Unruly ShareRank algorithm, they found it was as intrinsically shareable as the Budweiser ad.  The Microsoft ad, which was launched on the day of the Super Bowl (February 2), actually achieved just over 80,000 shares.
  • The most shareable ads in this study evoked intense psychological responses among viewers. The most shared ad this year used warmth and happiness as its key emotional triggers (and stayed away from humor). The ads in the 2014 Super Bowl in general provoked less intense psychological responses than the previous Super Bowl, one of the key reasons that sharing was down year-over-year.

Dr. Karen Nelson-Field, of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science, author of Viral Marketing: The Science of Sharing, who has also carried out a separate study into how celebrities affect the shareability of an ad said, “Fame is not all it’s cracked up to be. Our research shows that simply putting a famous celebrity in a video will not drive sharing alone.

Unruly’s US President Richard Kosinski said, “Brands should save the celebrities for the half-time show. It wasn’t famous faces which had people sharing at this year’s Super Bowl, it was a cute puppy, a caring soldier and a multi-cultural ad from Coca-Cola that stole the show.

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The report – the second white paper released by Unruly to help advertisers maximize their online presence and drive advocacy and ROI during tentpole events such as the World Cup, Olympics and the Super Bowl – also shows that having the right content is only half the battle.

Paid Online Media is a Huge Factor in Virality

Kosinski added, “Savvy marketers know that strong content is not enough to drive millions of shares, having the right paid online media distribution plan in place is just as important. For brands, it’s no longer just about their TV ads being watched on Super Bowl Sunday. With more than 24 million shares tracked every 24 hours, the real opportunity for marketers is to connect their paid TV sponsorship with their paid media online, where their ads can be watched and shared before, during and way after the Big Game.”

Super Bowl advertisers had different release strategies: some released content weeks before the Big Game, others a few days before, while some released their online spots on the night of the Super Bowl – all factors which affect sharing. As you can see in the chart below, Unruly tracked the shares day by day for the 14 Super Bowl Videos in this study. You’ll also see that the ads which were released early benefited from two viral peaks, one two days after launch and the second after the Super Bowl broadcast.

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Each brand’s release strategy turned out to be highly significant for this year’s Super Bowl. Super Bowl XLVIII was widely perceived as a boring game, a blowout, which likely became far less interesting to its audience as the night wore on. This phenomenon may have hurt the advertisers who ran in the third and fourth quarters, particularly those that didn’t pre-release their spots online before game day. So, releasing ahead of the game helped an advertiser hedge its bets on game day, and allowed for a second viral peak boosted by the publicity of appearing in the game’s broadcast.

Of the 14 ads in this study, the most shared were those that released in advance of the Super Bowl. The majority of the poorest-shared ads were released on the day of the Super Bowl. Click here to download the full report.