University of Tennessee

Super Bowl Advertisers Achieve Mixed Results With Social Narrative Ads

February 10, 2020

With a viewership that surpasses 100 million and advertising costs for a 30-second commercial reaching as high as $5.6 million for this year’s game, the Super Bowl continues to be the single biggest annual event for U.S. advertisers. For companies that want to communicate a message beyond simply promoting their brand, the game presents an enormous opportunity to influence the public’s attitude about hot-button issues. Tyler Milfeld, a Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, is studying these types of ads as part of his research on how brands use storytelling.

Milfeld and his Ph.D. advisor, Dan Flint, Regal Professor of Marketing at Haslam, coined the term “social narrative videos” to describe ads in which brands take a stance on a social issue and then present their position through storytelling. Flint says Milfeld has rapidly become a leading expert on these types of ads, which have become increasingly popular in the past several years.

Milfeld says some brands used the social narrative approach more effective than others for this year’s big game. He notes that the overall trends for Super Bowl ads – celebrity spokespeople, pop culture references, over-the-top scenarios, and frequent product messages – can work well for some types of ads. However, for social narrative videos, these strategies tend to “interrupt the immersive experience,” he says. “It results in a more critical evaluation of the ad.”

As examples, Milfeld points to Secret and Microsoft, two of several brands whose ads for this year’s Super Bowl were created to promote gender equality. 

The Secret ad features a slow-motion shot of a kicker kicking a football through a goal post to win a game. The crowd goes wild, but then is stunned into silence and confusion when the kicker and holder remove their helmets to reveal that they are U.S. women’s soccer stars Carli Lloyd and Crystal Dunn. After a pause, the fans begin cheering louder than ever.

The Microsoft spot, called “Be the One,” features the story of San Francisco 49ers offensive assistant coach Katie Sowers, who has loved football since childhood and this year became the first woman to coach in the Super Bowl. “All it takes is one,” Sowers says in the ad, “and then it opens the door for so many.”

Of these two ads, viewers received the Microsoft spot much more positively, according to a national survey Milfeld used for his research. The ad’s theme of overcoming obstacles was relatable for the audience, while some viewers found the Secret ad to be unrealistic and overly dramatic, which distracted them from the story.

Milfeld says viewers who are not immersed in an ad’s story tend not to perceive it as a story at all. Instead, they view it as an ad meant to persuade, and they may interpret it in a way that differs from the brand’s intention.

“These alternate themes are not misinterpretations,” Milfeld notes, “but meanings based on the individual’s own experience.” In harnessing the power of social narrative, he says, “brand managers should seek to understand how different scenes can be interpreted and what causes consumers to disconnect from the story.”



Stacy Estep, business writer/publicist (865-974-7881,