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  • Writer's pictureDennis Sullivan

Want the secret to the most effective marketing formula? Tune into the Super Bowl

As you watch this year’s Super Bowl game, check out the “other” game.

That’s the game in which millions of dollars have been spent by some of the world’s leading brands to get the attention of you and more than 120 million other viewers – and one that can teach you everything you need to know about marketing.

It makes you wonder what makes a Super Bowl ad, well, super? And if there is a formula, can it be applied to other forms of marketing and advertising?

To understand what makes a Super Bowl ad super, you can look to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

One of my former colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen, Ph.D., of UNC, led a two-year study and found that the ads consumers responded to most favorably were those that followed the old five-act dramatic structure Shakespeare often followed in his plays, according to their findings published in the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice (Fall, 2014). If you recall from your high-school English classes, Gustav Freytag’s theory of the five-act dramatic structure includes the exposition, complication, climax, reversal and denouement.

You may remember it as Freytag’s “pyramid,” an effective storytelling tool underlying some of the most successful fiction, Hollywood story lines, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Each follows a familiar formula:

  • Act 1: The Prologue – the story opens as the characters are introduced in which a conflict is introduced between the protagonist and antagonist setting the plot in motion.

  • Act 2: Conflict - the story becomes more complex as the protagonist faces more obstacles and frustration builds.

  • Act 3: Climax – the conflict reaches a high point. It is a turning point for the protagonist who can either be victorious or defeated.

  • Act 4: Falling Action – consequences of the climax play out in which all will be saved or lost.

  • Act 5: Denouement – the conflict is resolved, and the protagonist is either better off or worse off because of events unfolding in the drama.

Take Romeo and Juliet, for example. We’re introduced to both Romeo and Juliet, to their feuding families and to Tybalt who will do anything in his power to keep them apart. The story becomes more complicated by the fact Romeo and Juliet must try to marry in secret. Spoiler alert kids! In the climactic scene, Romeo kills Tybalt. Romeo is then banished. In the end, both Romeo and Juliet die by a series of misfortunes and the feud ends.

Freytag’s pyramid can also be applied to the most effective methods of advertising, as Quesenberry and Coolsen describe in their study. Remember Anheuser-Bush’s famous ad called “Fence”? Act 1 opens with a Clydesdale in one field and a young calf in another. Complications arise as they run together and realize a fence separates them. In Act 3, years later, the Clydesdale runs by the field pulling the Budweiser wagon as the grown steer runs to catch up and approaches the fence. The reversal occurs in Act 4 when instead of stopping at the fence, the steer breaks through it and both friends are joined together again in the final scene.

That ad was also one of the highest rated commercial among all the Super Bowl spots in two separate polls. Quesenberry and Coolsen’s study found that the same ads that rated the highest by consumers also followed Freytag’s old five-act dramatic “pyramid” structure. Those that followed just a two, three or four-act structure didn’t perform as well.

Take this year’s “Smaht Pahk” ad. It opens with the Whalberg brothers trying unsuccessfully to park their car in a narrow space. Then, John Krasinski (from The Office and Jack Ryan) attempts to do the same with his new 2020 Hyundai Sonata. The tension builds as Chris Evans (from Marvel Studios Avengers Endgame and Knives Out) and SNL’s Rachel Dratch with their thick Boston accents can’t believe Krasinski would even attempt to park in such a narrow spot. "Oh, you'he not fittin youh cah in theh!" Evans says. Krasinski saves the day with the car’s automated smart park feature as he gets out of the car and the parks itself. All are amazed!

Sounds simple, right? The ad agency went through 334 scripts. The rewrites appears to being paying off. The ad tested at a score of 700, 27% higher than the norm of 552, according to Ad Week magazine. Most importantly, when reviewers were asked to name the single best thing about the ad, they named the cast and the product itself, which is critical for a successful promotion.

Why is this so important? Other studies show that ads rated highest among consumers are more likely to be shared via social media on YouTube and Facebook and generate positive “word-of-mouth” advertising, which helps build trust, value and engagement – all of which, can lead to increased sales!

Last year’s highest rated ad, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame movie trailer also starring Chris Evans, follows the 5-act drama formula. It generated three times more digital activity than any other commercial and went on to become the 2nd highest grossing movie in North America behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As you watch this year’s Super Bowl and breakdown the plays on the field, breakdown the commercials you see in between the action on the field. Chances are good that the best ads you’ll see follow the same story-telling formula that has been around for centuries.

Stay tuned…in the next article, I will show how you can use the same story-telling formula in your own sales and marketing to get the attention of your best prospects and increase sales.

About Dennis J. Sullivan: Dennis is author of The Breakthrough One Page Marketing Plan ( and is owner of Breakthrough Pros, a marketing consulting company. He is a frequent speaker and is an Associate Professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. He is also a former fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is the recent recipient of ACBSP’s International Teaching Excellence Award – making him one of the top business professors in the world. As owner of Breakthrough Pros, he specializes in growing and turning around businesses. Contact information: or

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