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Super Bowl

Risks and Rewards of Confronting Consumer Bias at the Super Bowl

By Published on .

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No doubt the Super Bowl is the world's greatest stage for reinforcing and driving home all a brand stands for. But what if the goal isn't reinforcement, but reinvention -- confronting and overturning consumer bias about a brand?

Decision science tells us it's an uphill battle to fight against bias -- our brains' desire to reinforce what we already believe, rational or not.

More than ever, we're living in a world where deeply-held biases shape beliefs and actions -- where what we see, hear and read is tailored to reconfirm our biases. So, when we're all so affected by biases, it's almost reassuring to hear it's just natural and how our brains work.

Reason isn't enough

Imagine the extraordinary measures needed to shift biases about a brand, to get consumers to expend the cognitive energy to reevaluate their beliefs. It requires a powerful, emotional reaction.

This work is not for the faint of heart, given the Super Bowl's price and global audience. Failure means more than wasted money: it can reinforce existing perceptions or make them worse. Yet big risks can bring big rewards. Witness the bold steps several brands took to confront our biases and turn our perceptions around with their Super Bowl ads.

Since cars are the biggest ticket item in Super Bowl ads, it's not surprising car companies used this big stage to reinvent their brands. From Lexus, Mercedes and Audi to Ford and Buick, the message WAS "we're not who you think we are." All tried to play on emotions because, as decision science and recent events show, reason and facts aren't enough to change minds.

Clear winners, busted plays

In its mesmerizing ad, Lexus blends man and machine in a dance that's all visceral emotion. Without copy, images of the car synced to the dancer's moves subtly offer rational points to support the emotional reaction. A pregame poll found the ad improved perceptions of Lexus with those able to afford it; plus, 18- to 29-year-olds (luxury car buyers in training) loved the ad and said it made them think differently about Lexus.

Like Lexus, Mercedes is seen as a conservative car for affluent businessmen, not people who crave individualism. But with its homage to "Easy Rider," Mercedes inspires emotion and comes across as a bad-ass ride for the open road. No, it's not aimed to younger drivers -- just ones who think they're still young enough to break some rules. Touchdown.

Then there's everyman's brand: Ford. With a nod to Gens Y and Z who don't necessarily aspire to own cars, it's reinventing itself as a mobility brand. Again, it's all about emotion. We can all identify with being stuck, and breathe a sigh of relief at being set free. That emotion gets you engaged enough to pay attention to the message. Now it's up to Ford to deliver on this promise.

It's got to be authentic

Audi also plays on emotions with the father's worry about his daughter's future juxtaposed with her winning ride. While the "drive progress" tagline offers a context for the equal pay for equal work message, Audi needs to do more to make it feel authentic to the brand -- especially when there are no women on the company's board and only two women among its 14 American executives. While I 100% support the intent of this bold play, without having all ITS ducks in a row, Audi sets everyone up for the Hail Mary and then drops the ball.

But I give the biggest fail to Buick. No matter how much information you throw out, people have a deeply-ingrained view of Buick as a stodgy, old man's car. And nothing about this spot works to change this perception. The association with Cam Newton doesn't raise an emotional reaction, which is what it would take to make you question your bias or feel confident telling people Buicks are cool. In fact, by protesting too much, Buick actually reinforces the popular belief that a Buick can't possibly look sharp.

Of course, a great Super Bowl ad -- even with all the game-day eyeballs and pregame chatter -- can't reverse brand bias overnight. After all, Matt Ryan made us believe for three quarters, and, despite our biases, we even clung to hope as the game went into OT -- all for naught. Brands need to continue to deliver with ongoing advertising, tangible actions and, most of all, products that actually live up to our new perceptions of them.