University of Tennessee

Celebrities Can Overshadow Products and Messaging in Super Bowl Ads

March 30, 2022

Each February, all eyes in the advertising world are focused on Super Bowl commercials, which can influence marketing trends and tactics for months to come. This year, with so many brands and platforms vying for viewers’ attention on game day, many advertisers tried to stand out by featuring celebrities in their ads. That strategy may have backfired, according to Tyler Milfeld, a Ph.D. candidate in marketing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, and his advisor Dan Flint, Regal Professor of Marketing at Haslam.

While stars may provide credibility and personality for brands, their presence can distract audiences from what’s being advertised. In their research, Milfeld and Flint — who have been studying trends in Super Bowl ads for the past four years — found that even the morning after the game, viewers had trouble remembering the brands featured in ads with public figures.

“When we asked consumers for their favorite ads — unaided — most comments focused on the celebrity,” Milfeld said. “Star power presents a brand recall problem and may help the celebrity more than the brand.”

Many stars also used their own platforms to create buzz for their commercials ahead of time. With more consumers cutting cable and opting to watch major sporting events via streaming services or apps, sharing pre-released ads on social media is now the norm. This strategy offers brands and their celebrities a chance to connect with a larger audience. 

“As consumer viewing habits have expanded to different platforms, pre-releasing ads makes them more accessible and allows brands to get a pulse on early consumer reception,” Milfeld said. “Brands can then leverage the positive buzz or try to reframe the narrative before the big game.”

Celebrities Can Help Showcase Brand Benefits

Advertisers used a few different tactics to demonstrate the benefits of their brands, often effectively incorporating celebrities. Some companies highlighted functional benefits to focus on how a brand can solve a consumer’s problem. For example, in Verizon’s ad, Jim Carrey reprises his title role from “The Cable Guy” to emphasize that internet installation can be easy and cable-free. Another approach played up emotional benefits by showing a brand transforming the consumer, such as the Planet Fitness ad in which Lindsay Lohan sheds her party girl image by working out at the fitness chain.

“The use of celebrities is effective here because the brand can play off a star’s public persona to show the transformation,” Milfeld said.

Category-focused messaging was another trend the researchers saw this year. Several travel companies ran Super Bowl ads, indicating optimism that their industry will bounce back in 2022. In other categories, some brands tried to position themselves as innovators within a sub-category. Like the use of celebrities, this strategy can be risky because the overall sub-category may overshadow the specific brand, particularly if competing ads have similar messages.

“A brand may benefit from competitor ads if the competing brand does not establish a point of difference (e.g., consumers may recall an electric vehicle ad but not remember the brand),” Milfeld said. “They may misattribute the ad to another brand or go to a favorite brand’s website to see their electric vehicles.”

“The high cost of Super Bowl commercials may be worthwhile for some brands due to the potential audience size,” Flint said. “However, as always, a mastery of psychology, social psychology, linguistics and storytelling are essential to actually have a meaningful impact on that audience. In this case, simply seeing is not believing.”


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist,