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Funniest Super Bowl ad? How about most effective

Bob Woods, Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 3 Feb 2014 | 3:44 PM ET

The Super Bowl's funniest ad is not necessarily its most effective.

While Seattle's football-crazed fans—aka the "12th Man"—celebrated their Seahawks' stampeding of the Denver Broncos, 43–8, in Sunday night's Super Bowl XLVIII, they weren't the only winners from the area. Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's fourth-quarter ad, "Empowering," was named winner of the 10th annual Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review.

Microsoft's "Empowering" advertisement from the Super Bowl.
Source: Microsoft | YouTube
Microsoft's "Empowering" advertisement from the Super Bowl.

Since 2005, Tim Calkins, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, has assembled a few dozen MBA students and faculty members to watch the game in a room filled with big-screen TVs and grade the ads.

"It's a funny Super Bowl event," Calkins says, "because it's noisy during the game and gets real quiet during the commercials." There was plenty of pizza and guacamole, but no beer. "We want everybody to be fully attentive in the fourth quarter," he said.

(Read more: What players get paid for winning the Super Bowl)

The students evaluated the ads based on a set of strategic criteria, dubbed the ADPLAN Framework. Whereas other polls rate commercials solely on popularity among TV viewers, the Kellogg review measures overall effectiveness relative to the advertiser's marketing and branding goals.

ADPLAN comprises six basic marketing gauges: attention, distinction, positioning, linkage, amplification and net equity.

"We're less about comedy and entertainment value, and more about the overall business impact," Calkins said. An ad can be hilarious, but if no one recalls the product, it's a relative flop.

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Generally, this year's heavily hyped crop of Super Bowl ads were remarkable for their motivating and inspirational themes, eschewing past years' snarky, sexy or intentionally controversial messages.

Microsoft's—which features scenes of how ordinary people use technology to overcome physical handicaps, from deafness to amputations—hit both the emotional and effectiveness buttons best, Calkins said.

"It spoke to the power of technology," he said, "and it connected back to Microsoft."

(Read more: Why so many ex-NFL players struggle with money)

The ad also works on the competitive front. "Microsoft has struggled to define itself relative to Apple," Calkins said. "In this spot, it said, 'We are a serious brand doing important things that really help people.' Indirectly they make Apple seem a little bit frivolous in its focus on design and music."

Here are the other ads that got the highest "A" rating from the team at Northwestern:

  • Cheerios
  • Heinz
  • Volkswagen
  • Butterfinger
  • Budweiser

—By Bob Woods, Special to CNBC.com.

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