News Page Header

UW-Eau Claire news release

 SHARE   |  

Sexy Super Bowl ads not among viewer favorites, researchers say

January 20, 2012
Rama Yelkur
Dr. Rama Yelkur
Chuck Tomkovich
Dr. Chuck Tomkovick
EAU CLAIRE — Super Bowl advertisers who plan to use sex appeal to make their ads more likable during the NFL's Super Bowl XLVI extravaganza should proceed with caution, according to two internationally recognized experts on Super Bowl advertisements.

"Sex appeal does not cause ad likability," said Dr. Rama Yelkur, a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire marketing professor who has studied Super Bowl ads for nearly two decades. "If you're going to use it, you need to do so with caution and be smart about it."

Tomkovick and Yelkur's research is cited and the researchers have been interviewed for articles and broadcasts worldwide.See a list of the articles and broadcasts.
Successful Super Bowl ads that do feature sexy images also include humor or other elements that appeal to viewers, said Dr. Chuck Tomkovick, a
UW-Eau Claire marketing professor and Yelkur's research partner. Their data show that ads that rely only on sex appeal are not well liked, he said.

Using USA Today's highly regarded ad likability index, Yelkur and Tomkovick have studied how a variety of elements — including the use of humor, animals, kids or celebrities — influence Super Bowl ad likability. The researchers have studied every Super Bowl ad from 1989 to the present, plus many more that go back as far as the famous 1973 Noxzema shaving cream ad featuring Joe Namath and actress Farrah Fawcett.

"We found that the more sexual content there is in a Super Bowl ad, the less people like it," Yelkur said, noting that the Super Bowl is a family event so popular ads tend to be family friendly. "Racy ads are not well liked."

That could explain why Super Bowl ads for movies traditionally have not done well in the USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter, Tomkovick said, adding that most movie trailers that air during the NFL's biggest game are heavy with sexual images.

While sexy ads may decrease ad likability, the use of sex appeal can increase company name recognition, which may be more important to some businesses than having popular ads, Tomkovick said. For example,'s sexy Super Bowl ads have not done well in the ad likability ratings but have helped increase awareness of the website, he said.

"The GoDaddy spots are almost like soft porn," Tomkovick said. "They are way, way over the top. But they use the ads to drive people to their website. Their goal is clearly product name recognition and not likability. They don't need to be liked."

Companies like Pepsi and Budweiser also often use sex appeal in their Super Bowl ads, but they combine it with humor, celebrities or other elements that give them the cover they need to make it work, Tomkovick said.

Using sex appeal in Super Bowl ads appears to be an increasingly popular trend among advertisers, Tomkovick said, noting that about 30 percent of the 2010 and 2011 Super Bowl ads included sexy images. For several years, many advertisers shied away from using sex appeal after the infamous Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction in 2005, he said.

"But with the new wave of reality TV that is built around sexy women, sex appeal is becoming more a part of our TV culture again," Tomkovick said. "Sex appeal is being used again in Super Bowl ads for everything from cars to beverages."

To make ads likable, advertisers should pair sex appeal with other ad elements that will be viewed favorably, Yelkur said. For example, humor often boosts ad likability, she said.

"They still need to avoid things that are so inappropriate that they are demeaning, especially to women," Yelkur said. "The Swedish bikini team is not going to work anymore."

In recent years, advertisers have developed creative strategies to justify the use of sex appeal in their Super Bowl ads, Tomkovick said. For example, Chevy's 2011 Super Bowl ad was heavy in sexual imagery but the company justified it by playing up that the ad was the result of an ad contest, he said.

"They got away with it because a lay person created the ad as part of a contest," Tomkovick said. "They used the consumer-created ad idea as cover, or as a disclaimer."

A few years ago, advertisers purposely created ads that were so racy that they were rejected by the networks and could not air during the Super Bowl, Tomkovick said.

"The rejected ads were a point of pride for some companies," Tomkovick said. "They would brag about how many ads were rejected because of their sexual nature. They would post the rejected ads on their websites as a way to drive traffic to their sites. But now Super Bowl ad production costs are so high that there is a lot less of that sort of thing."

With 30-second ads for the 2012 game selling for $3.5-$4 million, tens of millions of game-day viewers and online opportunities to share ads with millions more viewers, the pressure to create popular ads has never been higher, Yelkur and Tomkovick said.

Super Bowl ads are more powerful than ever because they are now available in so many formats, often long before and after the actual football game, Tomkovick said. Some companies produce multiple versions of ads and ask people to vote online for their favorite version prior to Super Sunday, and ads can be found on websites immediately following the game, he said.

"These ads are seen by millions of people who don't see the actual football game, and they can be viewed multiple times by the same people in a variety of formats," Tomkovick said. "Running a 30-second Super Bowl ad is no longer a one-time thing."

As a result, their Super Bowl research — which focuses on what makes Super Bowl ads likable and the financial performance of the firms that invest in Super Bowl ads — has generated a great amount of interest among advertisers and the media, Yelkur said. Their research has been cited extensively by hundreds of media outlets throughout the world, and their findings have been published in several prestigious professional marketing journals.

"All of this matters to advertisers because if people like the ad, they are more likely to like the product," Yelkur said. "And if they like the product, they are more likely to buy it. Successful Super Bowl ads can generate sales."

Among their most recent findings is that celebrities have lost their influence when it comes to popular Super Bowl ads, Yelkur said. For years, the use of celebrities was a top predictor of Super Bowl ad likability, but that no longer is true, she said.

Instead, the inclusion of children has become a top predictor of Super Bowl ad likeability, along with humor, animals and product category, Tomkovick said. Limiting the amount of information shared about a product during the ad also was added last year to their list of top five ad likability predictors, he said.

Additional research completed by Tomkovick and Yelkur also found that the aggregate stock prices of publicly traded firms that ran in-game Super Bowl ads outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 by more than 1 percent during a two-week period (Monday before the Super Bowl through the Friday after the game).

"One percent doesn't sound like much until you realize that it translates into tens of billions of dollars," Yelkur said. "The stock price performance wasn't related to ad popularity or any specific industry category. Our research suggests that advertising in the Super Bowl is a tradable event independent of actual ad content or other predictors."

For details about their Super Bowl research, contact Dr. Chuck Tomkovick at 715-836-2529 or, or Dr. Rama Yelkur at 715-836-4674 or



Excellence. Our Measure. Our Motto. Our Goal.