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The Super Bowl Commercial Formula and How to Use it for Learning Design

Attention is a key ingredient to any learning solution. Think about the times when you have successfully learnt something new. How was your attention captured in a way that enabled you to successfully focus and comprehend the content? Potentially you have had your attention captured in many ways, whether it was a YouTube video, an optical illusion or an interview that just seemed to stand out from the rest. If something is new, different or unusual it’s bound to catch our eye (Cooper, 2013).

So, how do we capture the attention of our learners? Well, we thought about happenings in the world that capture a significant amount of attention and one specific event came to mind (*cue drumroll)...the Super Bowl. With an average televised audience of 98.2 million, the Super Bowl is one of the most watched television events in the United States and the attention is not restricted to America (Perez, 2019), it extends to the whole globe. We decided to research and pull apart what draws millions of people’s attention to this event. After all it has the hype and attention that us as L&D gurus, Educators, Instructional Designers and HR Managers aspire to.

Before we started our research we thought we would ask others what makes them want to watch the Super Bowl. The first person we asked said that they loved the commercials. Let us repeat that, the COMMERCIALS! The general person despises commercials (us included). They interrupt what we are listening to or watching and let’s face it, they can be a pain. Our conversation with this person resulted in us watching YouTube videos of their favourite commercials from the Super Bowl and it was then that we realised we had to figure out what made them so attention grabbing. From Bud Light beer that took on a Game of Thrones theme to Doritoes who created a catchy music video, the commercials are diverse though each special and attention grabbing in their own way.

55% of American’s said that they’d be disappointed if the Super Bowl went commercial free (Klara, 2017). Advertising can often be seen as intrusive, unprofessional or even insulting to an individual’s intelligence (Klara, 2017) though Super  Bowl commercials are often quirky, ironic, strange and experimental in nature and people actually want to watch them.

The fact that something that is generally hated by the world can be so liked is interesting in itself. We were determined to get to the bottom of it and lucky for you reading this you are about to find out. It’s time to create the buzz and attention that your learning solutions deserve. So, sit back, relax and prepare yourself to create an attention grabbing learning solution touchdown.

First things first, why do companies spend so much on featuring a Super Bowl commercial and what do they hope to get out of it? Well, the primary goal is of course to sell their product or idea. The lever for achieving this is through capturing attention. Companies spend so much on these commercials in the hope that after the event, everyone will be talking about it (Syken, 2016) and in turn build familiarity with their brand. From our research this is how these companies capture attention.

1. Current Trends and Topics of Discussion

A theme that we discovered from the best Super  Bowl commercials was that they pulled on a trend or topic of discussion in society at the time. The Bud Light Game of Thrones commercial is a prime example of this. Bud Light were smart. They knew that a large proportion of the population watched Game of Thrones and used this to their advantage. Our Instagram story feeds have been filled with Game of Thrones opinions, photos and videos and it is evident that it is a viral point of discussion.

Airbnb also created a commercial that is a prime example of this. The commercial was topically timed and was put together only nine days prior to the game (Whitler, 2018). The commercial aligned perfectly with Airbnb’s refugee support strategies that was a controversy trending at the time, communicating the power of community and a willingness to let strangers stay in their homes (a strong link to the conversation around refugees). You can watch the commercial here.

Tapping into current trends and topics of discussion works. So, how can we as learning designers incorporate this into our solutions. Well for a start, it helps for us to understand what is trending in society and what our users are interested in and talking about. If memes are popular on the internet, could we replicate memes in how we deliver our learning solutions? If there is a topic of conversation that is trending can we incorporate it somehow? What should be considered is that trends and topics of discussion change over time, so if you are going to incorporate a trend, consider ones that will stand the test of time (or at least until you want to add a new spin to your learning solution).

2. Incorporate Novelty

Something that we noticed was that many of the best Super Bowl commercials incorporated some element of novelty. We as humans are drawn to novel and different things and companies are smart enough to harness that. Imagine if you saw a person wearing a gorilla costume on the street, you would look at them right? It’s out of the ordinary and potentially amusing. You would probably even tell your family and friends what you had encountered. You can see why novel commercials are effective, viewers telling their family and friends about the novelty of a commercial is a sure winner in the advertising world. 

A commercial that Heinz released was a prime example of this. Their commercial incorporated dachshunds wearing hot dog costumes running towards people dressed up as sauce bottles. The concept was novel, clever and amusing and was spoken about beyond the airing of the Super Bowl commercial. You can view the commercial here.

In your context, consider how you can incorporate novelty into your learning solutions. Whether it’s in the form of opening up the learning experience to initially capture attention or through explaining a concept. Get creative and gain attention from your learners by adding some novelty to the design.

3. Tell a Story

Often the success of a commercial can be dependant on the story that it tells. Stories capture our attention, make us laugh, cry and even help us relate to certain situations as individuals.

Rather than just telling any old story, companies tap into what their consumers care about and why (Adams, 2018). This pulls the listener in and captures their interest. For example, let’s say that there is a person who loves dogs. If that person is at a party and overhears someone telling a story about dogs, they are likely to revert their attention to that story (example written by a pug lover).

For your learning solutions, consider who your audience is, what they are interested in and why, to support you in developing a story. For example, if you are designing a learning experience for employees at a zoo, it is likely that they will be passionate about animals. It would therefore be effective to develop and share a story that is based on animals and elicits emotion.

4. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

The Super Bowl draws the attention of the masses, which can result in something called FOMO. FOMO, which is a fear of missing out, is the feeling that people have when they think that other people might be having a fulfilling experience without them (Develop Good Habits, n.d.). Let’s say all of your friends go to the same party that night and you don’t. In this situation you may experience FOMO. What if they have the best night of their life and you are not there to experience it with them? What if they consistently talk about something funny that happened on the night though you can’t join in on the conversation? The same goes for the Super Bowl. If your friends and family are watching it, you will want to too for fear of missing out.

This brought to our attention something that we may not consider with our learning solutions. How can we expect a learner to be interested in completing a learning experience if the people in their circle aren’t? If you receive a learning solution to complete and your fellow team members say that they won’t be completing it, it is likely that your own motivation levels will drop. This means that in order to spark attention and interest in a learning solution, it is important that others are doing it too (learners won’t want to miss out if everyone else is doing it after all!). When delivering learning solutions, encourage champions of change and leaders to complete it and have them encourage others to do the same. The more people that complete the learning, the more likely others will be inclined to do so.

So, those were the top themes that we picked up on for attention grabbing Super Bowl commercials. Have a go at incorporating the methods for capturing attention into your own learning solutions. If your learning is designed well, it deserves to capture attention and if you capture the attention of your audience you are already halfway there. If you experience success through incorporating these methods we would love to hear about it. It’s touchdown time!

If you are interested in this topic and would like to discuss it in further detail please don’t hesitate to contact our passionate founder, Kim Tuohy, by emailing or by connecting with her on LinkedIn. You can also hear us discuss this topic on YouTube. 

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Adams, B. (2018). How to Boost Your Marketing Score Big with Super Bowl Storytelling. Retrieved from

Cooper, B. (2013). Novelty and the Brain: Why New Things Make Us Feel So Good. Retrieved from

Develop Good Habits. (2019). What is FOMO? (And How the Fear of Missing Out Limits Your Personal Success). Retrieved from

Klara, B. (2017). Why the Super Bowl Is the One Time of Year People Actually Want to Watch Ads. Retrieved from

Perez, S. (2019). Super Bowl LIII set streaming records, while TV viewership saw massive drop. Retrieved from

Syken, B. (2016). Here’s Why Companies Spend Millions on Super Bowl Ads. Retrieved from

Whitler, K. (2018). The Best Super Bowl Ads: Experts Explain Which are Touchdowns and Why. Retrieved from

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