Leadership Lessons from Super Bowl Commercials

by | Apr 18, 2016

5434786_mThe big day was approaching. By “big day” I don’t mean election day (which can’t come soon enough) or a wedding day, I mean the Super Bowl-THE big day for U.S. sports fans. To be clear, I am not a U.S. sports fan, but even people like me watch the Super Bowl. My friend is a casual watcher of football but then on the lead up to Super Bowl he turns into a hardcore fan. He keeps up with all the latest news and even bets on the playoffs at https://www.fanduel.com/nfl-playoffs-super-bowl! It’s just something the Superbowl does to you. Not because of the game (maybe for the nachos and hot wings), but for the commercials. This year there was even a special television program recapping the top 50 Super Bowl commercials.

What’s your favorite Super Bowl commercial. …..got it? Maybe it’s the Mean Joe Green Coca-Cola commercial from years ago. Perhaps the one with the little boy dressed like Darth Vader who uses “The Force” to start his dad’s VW (my personal favorite); or the Cindy Crawford Pepsi commercial. Whatever the commercial, it is clear that watching them is almost as much of a spectacle as the game itself. No wonder so many look for the best cable options they can find (like these Dish TV Packages click here to see what’s available) well before the date comes up so they can enjoy the spectacle at home.

Super Bowl commercials have much to teach us about how to connect with and motivate people. We have a habit of relying solely on money and promotions to be the key motivators. They are referred to as extrinsic motivators. They work to a point. We underestimate the power of intrinsic motivators – those attributes of the job that makes us feel good about helping others and make us feel that we are using our skills well.

What neuroscience now shows is that intrinsic motivators such as doing work that benefits others activates the brain’s reward system.[i] As researchers Jesse Newton and Josh Davis state, “Management by objectives is a far more limited mental schema than management by aspiration.”

Consider Budweiser commercials. Budweiser had more commercials in the top 50 Super Bowls ads than any other company. With that many ads, we must be motivated to buy their beer because we know their high-quality ingredients and the details of their brewing process. Or not. Think about the content of Budweiser’s high-priced ads. For the most part, Budweiser devoted the most expensive television advertising opportunity to horses and puppies. Let me repeat that – horses and puppies. Why would they do that?

Budweiser, like other savvy communicators, might have gained behavioral insights about their viewers by using software tools from identity resolution companies such as SambaTV (https://www.samba.tv/business/identity). Perhaps they improved their advertising campaigns by understanding that humans respond well to stories that have emotional connections to what they care about. Those horses and puppies are guaranteed to create an “aww” response. These are intrinsic motivators that motivate from the inside.

As you consider your staff, what types of motivation do you rely on? Is it all about the bonus at the end of the year or the promise of a promotion? If yes, you may be thinking, “Why is that not enough?” Easy. There are no horses and puppies.

I’m not saying you should stop bonuses or promotions…please don’t. I am saying don’t limit yourself to that. Add in a generous helping of intrinsic motivators. Recognize exceptional levels of effort and explicitly point out how that effort results in something good for others and for the company. Praise acts of kindness and collaboration when a team supports each other for the good of the whole. Their brains already are feeling good. You make the brain’s reward circuits dance with recognition.

We can do this if we shift our thinking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have bonuses and promotions – we should. And, we need horses and

[i] Newton, Jesse and Davis, Josh. Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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