Super Bowl

H&R Block's Super Bowl Pitch: Now, Watson Can Do Your Taxes

Don't Expect Babies and Puppies in This Super Bowl Spot

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H&R Block has tapped Jon Hamm as spokesman.
H&R Block has tapped Jon Hamm as spokesman. Credit: H&R Block

After a rough 2016, H&R Block is pulling out all the stops to win this year's tax season. In December, the tax-service provider debuted a campaign with new spokesman Jon Hamm. Now, the brand is returning to the Super Bowl after an eight-year hiatus to pitch a first-time partnership with IBM Watson. H&R Block plans to use the technology of Watson to improve the tax preparation services at its 12,000 retail locations.

"It's this idea of man and machine together—it's not any attempt to get rid of the experts but instead to just enhance their judgements," said Kathy Collins, chief marketing and strategy officer at H&R Block. She noted that her company, which first approached IBM last May, wanted to do something big and bold to return to a leadership position after fading last year. The new partnership will use cloud-based Watson computing to cut through volumes of data and tax code in order to deliver the smartest financial returns to consumers.

H&R Block's 60-second spot on Sunday will air in the second commercial break of the first quarter. Though it will star Mr. Hamm, who will introduce the IBM Watson collaboration, the ad's tone will be more serious than the previous humorous spots that have recently aired.

"It's not a funny ad," cautioned Ms. Collins. "It's not babies and puppies. It's very much about, 'Woah, what the heck is happening with H&R Block?'"

The tax company, which spent $123 million on measured media in the U.S. in 2015 according to Ad Age's Datacenter, last appeared in the 2009 Super Bowl. Minneapolis-based Fallon handled creative duties, while VML, which like H&R Block is out of Kansas City, Mo. is the company's social agency.

In addition to dealing with competitors Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax, 62-year-old H&R Block has been contending with more pressure from TurboTax and the increasingly popular strategy of do-it-yourself taxes. Last year, the $3 billion company saw its share price drop 30%; the stock hit a three-year-low of $19.18 in May.

To stay in the game, H&R Block tapped Mr. Hamm late last year for a campaign with new tagline "Get your taxes won," and has rolled out about a dozen new spots. Initial social media reports for the first two weeks following Mr. Hamm's Christmas Day debut were 89% positive, Ms. Collins said in early January. The new campaign also calls out TurboTax by name, a more direct tactic for the brand, as it tries to boost its online business beyond the current 25%.

Meanwhile, TurboTax will also air a spot in the Super Bowl, its fourth consecutive buy. The Wieden & Kennedy spot, which features clumsy nursery rhyme character Humpty Dumpty, will kick off a new campaign pushing TurboTax's customer service expertise.

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