Super Bowl Empathy Meter
How did the ads stack up with emotion and impact?
While everyone under the sun is weighing in on this year’s Super Bowl ads, almost all tend to focus on one of two questions:
- Did I like it?
- Was it effective?
While these are important questions, with modern data science we can dig a little deeper. Not only can we gauge the intensity and emotions surrounding the reaction, we can also tell whether those reactions referenced the brand or not.
To do so, we use a technique called Empathy Modeling. It scans the social landscape in the aftermath of an ad, using natural language processing to determine the types and intensity of emotions expressed. That way, we know not merely if an ad had an impact, but how it made people feel.
For Super Bowl LI, POSSIBLE analysts looked at each ad* across eight different emotional dimensions: fear, delight, trust, sad, surprise, anger, anticipation, and joy, as well as more than 50 secondary emotions. Below you can find our data-driven analysis of the most interesting results, as well as commentary from our experts on why people may have reacted the way they did.
*Note: The empathy analysis was done as the conversation peaked during the Super Bowl. Some conversations have evolved emotionally since then, such as the notation of Audi's all-male board.
This controversial and highly produced ad showed part of a migrant family’s journey to the United States. It ended with an invitation to see the conclusion of the journey on the brand’s website. Not surprisingly, it evoked joy as its primary emotion, mainly due to the brand’s decision to spread a message of inclusion without any reference to its business. Surprise peaked at the fact that FOX made Lumber 84 pull images of the border wall for broadcast. But detractors had their say, too. Sadness and anger came from those who support building the wall or thought the journey was made to look like a camping trip. The ad also saw an uptick in anticipation, mainly because people were wondering about the conclusion of the journey.
Danielle Trivisonno Hawley, Chief Creative Officer: This will most certainly be the darling of Super Bowl LI, and for more reasons than that it was an emotionally charged, politically-driven spot. The joy isn’t surprising to me because there was a real spark between the characters and their story. The notion that as parents we’d do anything for our children is relatable, regardless of our political views.
Tim Hoppin, Group Creative Director: This is about as pure as a brand can get in communicating the intersection of its core values with the world at large. We urge our clients to take a stand for something, and the folks at Lumber 84 have done exactly that. Bravo! The execution was impeccable and the performances of the actors nearly perfect. Of all the commercials making a similar point about inclusion, this one felt the best to me. So, yes, joy made sense.
This ad shows, above all, that you can’t be too literal in interpreting an empathy model. In case you didn’t recognize him, Spuds Mackenzie was a ubiquitous mascot for Bud Light in the late 1980s. As a result, sadness popped considerably. Some of the reaction was sarcastic, poking fun at Bud Light’s heartless way of telling millions of people that their beloved character was dead. But that also blended with joy as viewers nostalgically remembered Spuds. The muted presence of all other emotions indicated that the commercial was not especially complex nor resonant. This is probably due to younger viewers’ lack of familiarity with the topic.
Carl Rogers, Executive Creative Director: I’m not surprised by the lack of other emotions. Considering the size of the audience and the fact that many of its members would be millennials, it didn’t seem likely that Spuds would resonate, especially as a ghost. I feel that by using nostalgia, they inadvertently alienated a large portion of the potential audience.
Tim Hoppin: "A" for effort? Pretty well-written spot using a tried and true plot courtesy of Charles Dickens, flavored with some good little gags. The lack of intensity in the Empathy Model seems spot on. If the target was me, it was pretty “meh.” If the target was anybody younger than me, a total miss. I watched my son look down at his phone after about 12 seconds.
The Audi spot was a clarion call for equal pay, which drove primarily an emotional output of trust. Viewers also felt joy that the brand was using the Super Bowl as a very public stage to make a stand for a just cause. Anger and surprise saw small bumps, though not exclusively from detractors. Many saw the spot as a catalyst to call out politicians and companies that perpetuated inequality.
Danielle Trivisonno Hawley: The company has always been about the constant pursuit of progress, and I personally liked the spot. In the last decade, the auto industry has certainly suffered much critique – to earn trust as the predominant emotion of this spot seems like a big win for Audi.
Carl Rogers: I know this ad received lots of vitriol online prior to the Super Bowl, but I think it served its purpose well. It cast Audi in a positive, thought-leading light without ramming the message down people’s throats. The one element that was superfluous was the portrayal of the little boy driver as a villain trying to steer the girl off the track. Equality is not anti-man. Plus, I think if the little girl won without any underhand tricks, it would have had more resonance.
Amy Boe, Group Creative Director: As a woman, this ad sadly rang very true. I loved that it pushed equality without belittling others. After the commercial, I saw many articles that showcased what Audi was doing to actually make a difference. For me it was a nice 360 to make a commercial about a current issue and then show that they were actually doing something about it. This is where I feel Lumber 84 missed the mark.
This ad garnered more intense reactions than most. A broad swath of viewers found joy in the humor of a seductive Mr. Clean. By contrast, a significant portion of the audience was annoyed and surprised at the decision to sexualize a mascot (illustrative tweet: “why...why does capitalism want us to f*ck mr. clean”). Interestingly, the disgust that featured prominently in the conversation is normally a red flag for brands. But in this case, it was mostly generated by viewers who said they would do “filthy things” with Mr. Clean, if given the chance.
Sarah Knott, Creative Director: Not for me but plenty weird enough to be remembered.
Adam Kahn, Executive Creative Director: It has been said that if spouses (i.e. husbands) help with household chores around the home, it will lead to a better sex life. So if this spot was made for the ladies to say that to their men, then I think it definitely hit the joy emotion for them. I think the brand nailed it on the head when they turned that oh-so-typical husband (which probably represents most of America) into one sexy Mr. Clean. I can’t say I got joy out of watching this but I’m sure someone did. I’m going to clean my apartment now.
Joy popped, as the concept of bathroom humor appeared to resonate with the audience. Anticipation was an unexpected emotion, but it seemed focused mostly on the fact that the spot was played prior to halftime, when viewers were thinking of the bathroom breaks about to take place. Surprise surrounded the brand’s decision to use potty humor, while disgust was more focused on the subject matter, rather than the brand itself.
Carl Rogers: The toilet humor was balanced with a genuine truth that every single person watching can understand. The virulence of the reactions, whether positive or disgusted, are good things for the brand. This ad comes from a place of unavoidable identification, and I think it did a good job of presenting this in a tongue-in-cheek manner while avoiding gross-out humor. I do think the cut was a bit cluttered though. It could have been even more effective by trying not cram in so many elements.
Amy Boe: I thought it was fun and entertaining which is what I want in a Super Bowl commercial. It felt like too many brands went too emotional this year. It a commercial during the Super Bowl…and you should have fun with it. The bathroom humor was good and smart but I wanted more of it. I also think it did a good job of speaking to more than one audience.
Obviously, with someone as popular as Justin Bieber, you need to be careful with your analysis. This commercial had the highest percentage of joy of any we monitored, not least because Bieber fans are insanely active on social media. Of course, Bieber has plenty of haters too, which is why anger shows up so prominently in second place. The bad news for T-Mobile? The context of conversation, regardless of emotion, centered exclusively around the star, rather than the brand.
Danielle Trivisonno Hawley: Put Justin Bieber on anything, and people will be joyous—less the haters, of course. The emotional results are not surprising. I think that they do spark a conversation around celebrity endorsements and how they pale in comparison to the engagement garnered from an influencer that makes sense to the core brand mission. People recognized Bieber, but do they care more about T-Mobile now?
Sarah Knott: The ladies at the gym this morning were talking about two commercials: the Subaru dog commercials during the Puppy Bowl, and this one. They called him a “dork” and giggled. Once a Belieber, always a Belieber, I guess. Wonder how many folks sent in their moves. I’m not surprised most of the conversation was around Justin, however, and not the brand.