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This is why feel-good ads dominate the Super Bowl

With Super Bowl 50 looming, if the Broncos or Panthers aren’t on your mind, then the Super Bowl ads certainly are. At $5 million a pop for each 30-second spot, the Super Bowl remains one of the most expensive ways to reach consumers, and with good reason. Nowhere else are ads considered entertainment alongside the main event.

The Super Bowl is the biggest stage to debut a new commercial. So what kind of ads are companies conjuring up this year? Which will work, and which won’t? How will we react to them on social media and elsewhere?  Digital Trends spoke with a few experts to find out.

The feel good nature of Super Bowl Ads

If you ask someone to think about a “typical” Super Bowl ad, this is probably what comes to mind:

It’s often something wild, zany, and just plain silly. The “Wazzup!” from Anheuser-Busch is just one among dozens of other ads we’ve seen over the years, all centered around humorous, feel-good advertising. Whether it’s Walter White in a Breaking Bad cameo, a miniature Darth Vader lifting a Volkswagen, or a “Up for Whatever” adventure, advertisers spend millions to ensure we enjoy their ads.

But some advertisers also take the Super Bowl as an opportunity to press touchy subjects too, such as water conservation in this Colgate ad:

These kinds of commercials are rare, and there’s a reason.”As advertisers we have to be careful — people want to party,” ad agency Gyro’s Creative Director Ronny Northrop told Digital Trends.

Northrop hasn’t worked on any Super Bowl projects, but in his experience with companies like HP and Burger King, the Super Bowl is not like any other advertising venue. People are watching in sports bars, crowded living rooms, and talking to others while watching the TV. It’s part of the entertainment experience, but won’t get our attention unless it deserves it.

Related: Best ads from this year’s Super Bowl

“It’s kind of like silent movies — you have to grab someone with visuals almost right away,” he added. When advertisers want to grab your attention, a quirky, funny ad works, and it fits right in with the atmosphere at your friend’s house or that crowded bar. Think slapstick style, flashing visuals, suggestive themes, or something about the big game itself, featuring former stars or other celebrities.

Digging deeper

“Taking the low road works,” Northrop concedes, “and it’s unfortunate.” As far as he sees it, advertisers can use an opportunity like the Super Bowl to present higher brow ads to one the largest audiences in the world, now including millions of live streaming viewers. Important issues can be brought to light, even while people relax and enjoy the largest sporting event in the United States.

“There’s no question we’ve seen a migration from ‘guys who watch football’ featuring humor, beer, and scantily clad women to something far more mature.”

Colgate opened the tap with water conservation, for instance, and last year Microsoft produced a commercial about overcoming disabilities with technology. Nationwide even attempted to tackle the accidental death of children, even if it produced more than a few horrified gasps and wide-eyed gazes.

But it different doesn’t have to mean dark. “Things like the Coca-Cola spot with Charlie Brown are really interesting, too,” Northrop says. “Advertisers can try for something beautiful as opposed to showing someone getting hit in the balls.”

An evolving TV audience

Nielsen’s Dr. Carl Marci agrees there’s a careful balance needed to produce a successful serious ad. “Humor rules, but the ground is always shifting,” Dr. Marci told us.

For the most part, the ads that perform best with audiences stay positive, even if they’re about a serious topic. A great example of this came in Chrysler’s Super Bowl Ad from 2011, which directly addressed Detroit’s hard times with a message of grit and resolve, rather than sympathy.

At the end of an ad like this, we’re jazzed up. Advertisers that channel this sort of energy are still making us feel good, just in a very different way from puppies and slapstick humor.

Dr. Marci tells us that other serious ads, such as Dove’s Real Strength ad, speak to an evolving TV audience. Ads aren’t just meant for those having a beer and enjoying the game anymore. They’re geared toward families. That “feel good” imagery is still at the heart of the advertisement, but presented in a very different manner.

“There’s no question we’ve seen a migration from ‘guys who watch football’ featuring humor, beer, and scantily clad women to something far more mature.”

But still, as Dr. Marci warns, “Audiences don’t want to be talked down to. It’s an evening to be entertained. Emotional engagement scores hit the message well and depend on resonating with the audience, and it drops off as you get more preachy in your ad.”

Nielsen, Dr. Marci, and other neuroscientists who extensively research this topic don’t come to their conclusions on a whim. They use engagement research and biometric testing to see how people respond in real time to events such as last year’s Super Bowl. The ads that perform best tend to walk the fine line between seriousness and feeling good. No one wants to be left on a sour note during a Super Bowl ad.

Second screens are as important as ever

As we watch the game on our TVs, and now our computers through CBS live streaming, the emergence of second screens, the smartphones and devices we use while we watch, is a core part of measuring our engagement. We’re all very used to seeing hashtags and Web links all over our Super Bowl ads. Some ads, like last year’s Squarespace commercial with Jeff Bridges, are nothing without the websites they link to. We’re going to see only more of this at this year’s game, as depend on second screens to get the most out of our Super Bowl experience.

Advertisers know their ads don’t live in a bubble. Much like how we’ve watched John Legere trash talk on Twitter, and wireless carriers create response ads to one another, we’ll continue to see commercials that demand engagement, make fun of other common advertisers, or just try to break the fourth wall in creative ways. Brands are always trying to turn a good ad into a viral opportunity.

Dr. Marci told us that one big change in recent years is how ads reveal themselves. Ads have already started appearing on sites like YouTube for weeks before the main event, with advertisers trying to out-do one another. What was once a “big reveal” during the game is nearly gone as countless advertisers reveal their ads days — even weeks — in advance.

Related: Wireless Carriers are busting each others balls on TV

But when it comes to engagement, early reveals are not helping with audiences, as Dr. Marci tells us:

“If I had a choice between doing nothing, showing a teaser, or showing the full ad, I’d show just the teaser. It primes viewers. It’s not a great idea to show everything you have and lose the magic.” He added that we’re more likely to pay attention to the ad during the Super Bowl than at the office, or on the subway, when we’re often distracted.

Creating ads that millions will enjoy

America is a diverse country, and you have people across all 50 states tuning in to see the big game. It’s the biggest television event of the year, and in an era of a thousand distractions, having that sort of undivided attention is more valuable than ever. It also means your ads can’t cater to just a few niche groups.

Related: CBS will live stream Super Bowl 50

The best ads appeal to everyone, from folks in New York City all the way to tiny towns in Iowa.

When you enjoy the game this year, keep an eye on the ads you see, what they’re trying to accomplish, and how they go about it. The true winners of Super Bowl 50 may come between plays.