Johns Hopkins Finds With Super Bowl Commercials, Storytelling Beats Sex

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Jan. 31, 2014
Jill Rosen
Office: 443-997-9906
Cell: 443-547-8805

They say sex sells, but when it comes to Super Bowl commercials, a Johns Hopkins researcher begs to differ.

It’s all about the storytelling, found Keith A. Quesenberry, a lecturer in the university’s Center for Leadership Education.

Quesenberry, who teaches marketing, advertising and social media classes, conducted a two-year content analysis of 108 Super Bowl commercials. He found that people rated commercials with dramatic plotlines – the same story arcs favored by classicists like William Shakespeare – significantly higher than ads without clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

“People think it’s all about sex or humor or animals but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not,” Quesenberry said.

Quesenberry’s study, conduced with business professor Michael K. Coolsen of Shippensburg University, “What Makes A Super Bowl Ad Super for Word-of-Mouth Buzz? Five-Act Dramatic Form Impacts Super Bowl Ad Ratings,” will be published this spring in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice.

This year, a Super Bowl spot will cost $4 million for 30 seconds. Even with an expected viewership is 11 million viewers, Quesenberry said advertisers are looking for more – they want to have the ad that goes viral online. This year, he predicts, that ad will be Budweiser’s tear-jerker about a puppy’s friendship with a horse.

The more compete a story marketers tell in their commercials, he says, the higher it performs in the ratings polls, the more people like it, want to view it, and share it.

“Budweiser loves to tell stories – whole movies, really, crunched into 30 seconds,” Quesenberry said. “And people love them.”

For more information about the study or to interview Quesenberry, contact Jill Rosen at 443-997-9906, 443-547-8805 (cell), or



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