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Lessons learned from the top Super Bowl ads any business can apply

5 proven steps you can use in your own marketing that have worked for thousands of years


Did you see who won the Best Ads from the Super Bowl? By “best,” I don’t mean most entertaining. (How many ads do you find entertaining and have no idea what they’re promoting?) By “best,” I’m referring to the most effective; ads that will likely change buying behavior.


Consumer polls and ad experts appear to put two at the top of their list – the Hyundai Boston-oriented “Smaht Pahk” ad and Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” commercial featuring Bill Murray. Both followed a proven 5-step storytelling formula that dates back thousands of years and is still effective today. More about that in a moment. Interestingly, both ads featured cars.

While just about every brick-and-mortar retailer worries about online selling and Amazon disrupting their businesses, car dealers continue to find ways to grow. A few years ago, I asked one dealer why he wasn’t more concerned about online competitors. Calmly, he put his arm on my shoulder and in a very reassuring voice, he said, “People will always want to touch, feel and drive the car before they buy. Our goal, he said, “is simply to put ‘em in the car.”

Isn’t that the goal of marketing? To put your best prospects into your product or service so they want to buy?


The secret is to grab the attention of your target market with such a compelling message that they want to experience it for themselves. How? Lower your prices? Talk about your great quality? Nope.


The most effective marketing formula dates back to the ancient art of storytelling. Researchers call it narrative transportation – the power good storytelling has to “put ‘em in the car.” Effective storytelling has the power to transport someone and identify with a character so much that they see and feel what the character is experiencing, according to a meta-analysis of 76 published and unpublished research articles in a study released in the Journal of Consumer Research. For a story to be effective, it must have 3 things: (1) relatable characters, (2) an imaginable plot, and (3) it must be believable, the researchers concluded.

Effective storytelling has the power to transport someone and identify with a character so much that they see and feel what the character is experiencing.
- Journal of Consumer Research

For a formula, you just need to turn to the classics – Aristotle and Shakespeare. Classic storytelling, as described in Gustav Freytag’s five-act drama that you may remember from your high school English class, is still the most powerful tool to get consumers to retain a message, build trust, empathy and positive word-of-mouth marketing. In a two-year study of Super Bowl ads, the highest-rated commercials by consumers were those that followed Freytag’s five-act “pyramid” structure that includes: (1) exposition, (2) complication, (3) climax, (4) reversal, and (5) denouement. It’s the formula used in Star Wars, Rocky, Harry Potter and most successful advertising and marketing campaigns.


So how can use this same formula with your best prospects to “put ‘em in the car”?

First, identify who you are targeting in your marketing. Get very specific. I like to have one person in mind, who represents one market segment I am trying to appeal to in my marketing and advertising. (Tip: the prospect in mind should be one of your most skeptical prospects!) The more specific your target market, the more likely your market will relate to your characters and message.

Your protagonist should be your customer – not you! Your customers are the hero of the story! The antagonist in your story is the enemy, which could be previous products or services that you intend to replace, Big Banks, or even the status quo. Now, you can begin to tell your story using the 5-act structure. I already analyzed the 5-act structure using Hyundai’s highly effective Hyundai ad. Let’s look at Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” commercial…

  • Act 1: Paint the picture of your protagonist and describe the problem that relates to your target market. (Picture Bill Murray waking up back in a scene from the movie, “Groundhog Day,” where he is in a time loop, reliving the same boring day.)

  • Act 2: Show how the problem for your protagonist gets worse and the obstacles he/she has to overcome. (As Bill Murray continues through the day, he begins to panic. He cannot escape the fact that he is stuck in the time loop.)

  • Act 3: Show how the conflict reaches a high point. It is a turning point for the protagonist who can either be victorious or defeated. (Finally, he sees a brightly colored new Jeep. “That’s different,” Murray says.)

  • Act 4: Show how your product or service saves the day. (The Jeep transports Murray out of the dry, boring time loop he dreaded.)

  • Act 5: Show how much better off your protagonist is as a result of your product or service. (Afterwards, Murray is seen enjoying himself with his Jeep and the Groundhog he also saves.)

It’s no wonder Jeep’s ad is considered by many to be one of the best – and most effective – ads to run in the Super Bowl.


Amazon’s hilarious 2018 Super Bowl commercial is another terrific example. Remember that one? It was ranked #1 in USA Today’s Ad Meter survey – a measure of how well consumers respond to ads, which leads to positive word of mouth advertising and intended purchases. The ad is so effective because it follows the 5-act dramatic structure…



  • In Act 1, the problem is clear. Alexa suddenly loses her voice.

  • Act 2: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos panics and asks his team what they planned to do. The team employees several celebrities to serve as subject matter experts and field questions.

  • In Act 3, the situation gets worse. Chef Gordon Ramsay verbally abuses someone with a basic culinary question, singer Cardi B has difficulty with a question about space, and Anthony Hopkins brings it to a chilling climax as he channels Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs while feeding his hungry peacocks.

  • In Act 4, Alexa gets her voice back just in time.

  • And in the final act, Alexa reassures viewers that everyone can rest easy again.

The Amazon ad brilliantly uses dramatic storytelling in just 90 seconds to show how frustrated we would be if Alexa wasn’t available – and if you had to rely on someone or something else.


How can you use the 5-act formula to illustrate how your prospects will be better off with what you have to offer? How can use the tools of effective storytelling to “put ‘em in the car”?

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