Hired vs. Owned Devices: Understanding the Effectiveness of Celebrities in Advertising

  • Above-Average Costs, but Average Performance
  • Celebrities vs. Brand-owned Assets

While the Super Bowl is firmly in the rearview mirror, the insights from the big game can continue to shape the way that brands approach their creative. System1’s extensive review of Super Bowl ads airing from 2020 through 2023 reveals numerous insights for brands and agencies alike.

When many people hear the words ‘Super Bowl’ they don’t just think of two exceptional teams competing to be crowned the champion. They think of the halftime show and of course, the commercials. But do these ads, often the most anticipated of the year for the US market, actually live up to the hype?

And with a seemingly endless number of celebrities featured in big game commercials each year, you may be wondering whether these well-known stars are worth the investment.

The effectiveness of Super Bowl ads and celebrities may surprise you.

Above-Average Costs, but Average Performance

In 2023, a 30-second spot cost up to $7 million, the highest cost for a Super Bowl commercial to date. And advertisers are not just paying to secure their airtime. They are also investing millions of dollars to bring their commercials to life. Most advertisers work closely with agencies to develop ideas and source talent, and even brands with in-house creative teams spend a lot of time and money on their big game ads.

While there are certainly standout ads every year, there is also a lot of waste. Our research finds that Super Bowl ads are actually not much more effective than the average US ad, despite the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the event.

In 2020, Super Bowl ads averaged 2.7-Stars on our scale from 1 to 5.9-Stars, and all US ads averaged 2.3-Stars. In 2021, Super Bowl ads averaged 2.8-Stars compared to 2.1-Stars for all US ads. In 2022, the effectiveness of game ads dipped slightly to 2.6-Stars compared to 2.3-Stars for all US ads. In 2023, Super Bowl ads scored 2.9-Stars.

So, what’s an advertiser to do if they land squarely in the ‘average’ zone? Fortunately, if a company overspends on advertising relative to its market share, it will generally see some growth, even with an average, 2-Star ad. Advertising spend, as well as the emotional impact of an ad, is important.

Some of the Super Bowl commercials do have a life beyond the game, most likely to make the most of the enormous investment in the creative. However, others follow a one-and-done approach, airing only during the game. This is even more wasteful when the ad doesn’t score 3-Stars (considered ‘Good’ on our scale), 4-Stars (referred to as ‘Strong’) or 5-Stars (known as ‘Exceptional’).

Celebrities vs. Brand-owned Assets

So, do the ads that feature celebrities benefit from their involvement? Sadly, there’s no clear advantage to enlisting the help of a famous face. When looking at four years of Super Bowl ads, 37% used a famous actor, achieving an average score of 2.8-Stars, while 38% did not use a celebrity and averaged the exact same rating.

That’s not to say that celebrities are a lost cause. Stars lead to greater attention which, on average, increases the speed and accuracy of brand recognition. This also increases emotional intensity and short-term effectiveness with more people comprehending the ad message.

The key is using celebrities successfully. Simply casting a celebrity doesn’t make a winning ad. Famous figures shouldn’t be easily replaceable. Rather, they should be the best choice for the storyline. They must also be given the freedom to portray larger-than-life versions of themselves, like John Travolta did in T-Mobile’s 2023 Super Bowl ad.

Fluent Devices, which are recurring characters and scenarios, are much more effective when used in Super Bowl ads, scoring an average 3.7-Stars, well above the average Super Bowl ad. Think of M&Ms’ spokecandies, Planters’ Mr. Peanut and Snickers’ “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign. When these brand-created assets are used consistently, they’re extremely powerful. Thus, brands should invest in their own devices vs. renting one.

On the plus side, Super Bowl LVII did see a win for age diversity. The average age of the lead celebrity featured was 47, demonstrating the value in using widely-recognized celebrities who can appeal across generations. It’s one of the reasons that well-known athletes, actors, comedians and musicians are still beating out influencers in the primetime ads.