Why Our Super Bowl Ad Failed

This weekend, Cards Against Humanity purchased an ad during the Super Bowl, the most-watched American television broadcast of the year, reaching 114.4 million viewers.

Cards Against Humanity is known as an innovator in the games space, and we saw an opportunity to apply our unique brand of “outside the box” thinking to the old-fashioned world of Super Bowl commercials. While we succeeded creatively, the advertisement showed a disappointing return on investment ($0), and we are now going out of business.

In this postmortem, we will examine the thinking behind the ad and the invaluable lessons we learned along the way.

What Went Wrong?

We wasted time with establishment thinking. To begin work on the ad, we hired a full-service integrated advertising agency called “Wieden+Kennedy.” They wasted over six months of our precious time pitching concepts like people laughing while playing the game, and amusing card combinations coming to life on screen. Eventually, we realized that they were burdened by conventional thinking and fired them, but this left us with only 48 hours to complete the ad.

Overconfidence in the model. After firing the agency, we conducted extensive market research which demonstrated that the American consumer loves potatoes.

USDA market research demonstrating the popularity of the potato

The problem we failed to anticipate was that sports fans ultimately had trouble making the leap from “Super Bowl” to “potato” to “Cards Against Humanity.” This was a real lesson in humility. In hindsight, our model lacked “external validity.” Instead of asking one person if the ad was effective 70 times, we should have asked 70 people one time. This left us susceptible to what statisticians call “correlated errors.”

Bad luck. There are just some things you can’t control. We assumed that potatoes would feature more prominently in this year’s Super Bowl. However, no players were shown eating a potato, and potatoes were not mentioned at all during the game. We gambled big and lost.

Failure to trust our customers. We were worried that consumers would confuse the ad for part of the Super Bowl. This led us to make a fear-based decision to write the word “ADVERTISEMENT” on the potato.

We were asking the wrong questions. This is a classic trap. We spent so much time selecting the right potato for the ad that we never stopped to question whether a potato would convey the essential brand experience of Cards Against Humanity.

Some potato options that we purchased but ultimately discarded

Our ad failed to connect with young people. The potato is a beloved American vegetable with a rich history that is simultaneously hip and timeless. But in today’s modern society, the so-called “rules” of marketing no longer apply. Teens can go anywhere for entertainment, from their portable Nintendo devices to out-of-control blowjob parties. The humble potato just can’t compete.

We were too early. Going into this project, our research showed that most Super Bowl commercials are very exciting to watch. They feature lots of quick camera cuts and cool celebrity spokespeople like Jessica Simpson. Our strategy was to zig where everyone else zagged. We stand by this direction, but the market wasn’t ready for an ad with the courage to stand still in a world that moves.

We didn’t add music. In our concepts for the ad, we imagined cool music playing, like The Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, we spent all of the company’s money buying a Super Bowl ad spot and became fiscally insolvent. This forced us to cut our $1.5 million license for “Sympathy for the Devil.” Looking back, the effectiveness of this concept was 99% based on the audience hearing The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

We forgot to mention our product. There’s no getting around it. We should have included Cards Against Humanity’s name or logo in the ad. Was this our fault? Absolutely. Do we have regrets? Of course. If we could do it all over again, mentioning the name of our product would probably be our first change. Hindsight is 20/20.

Lessons Learned

Most startups fail for one of two reasons: they run out of money, or they fail to reach an audience. We spent all of our money while simultaneously failing to reach an audience. This is a classic blunder.

At Cards Against Humanity, we believe that you can only become a master by trying and failing. In this way, failure is life’s greatest teacher; failure is actually success. At Cards Against Humanity, we fail all the time. We are veterans of failure. And constant failure, plus unlimited capital, is what led us to greatness.

Will we do another ad next year? Yes. If we successfully emerge from Chapter 11, we will be seeking investors to bankroll an ad concept involving popular cereal grain “wheat.”

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