Day 6

How Cards Against Humanity hacked the Super Bowl ad game with a potato

The company made an ad that never aired, faked its own bankruptcy and earned a place in Super Bowl advertising history.
(Cards Against Humanity)

Companies will spend, on average, about $5 million for a 30-second ad during Super Bowl LII this Sunday.

In each timeslot, advertisers will attempt to make you alternate between chuckles and tears — or perhaps a good laugh-cry. But their greatest achievement will be getting you to share that ad on social media and talk about it.

Their strategies vary, but last year, the company behind the saucy card game Cards Against Humanity took an unexpected approach.

In 2017, they released a Super Bowl ad that featured a half a minute of still footage of a potato that had the word 'advertisement' etched onto it.

The name of the card game didn't appear anywhere on the screen.

Still, the mysterious potato commercial trended on social media. Shortly after that, Cards Against Humanity took to their blog and claimed that the cost of the ad had forced them into bankruptcy.

But despite the company's claims, suspicion quickly arose over whether Cards Against Humanity really paid such a hefty sum for such a simple ad — or whether the ad actually aired during the Super Bowl at all.

Cards Against Humanity is a popular party game for "horrible people," according to the company website. (Cards Against Humanity)


No return on investment

In an online statement released Feb. 5, 2017, the company claims the firm they initially hired — Wieden+Kennedy — offered ideas that just didn't work.

"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," the statement says.

The company goes on to say that once they realized Wieden+Kennedy was "burdened by conventional thinking," they fired the partners 48 hours before the big event and refocused their efforts.

"We conducted extensive market research which demonstrated that the American consumer loves potatoes," reads the statement.

According to the company, the ad failed to take off during the game because there weren't enough potatoes at the Super Bowl — apparently, they were really counting on Tom Brady to take a bite out of a spud.

But did the ad really fail?



Stop laughing, we're serious!

Reading the press release, it doesn't take long to figure out that the whole scenario is a joke.

"It's quite clever," says David Soberman, a marketing professor at University of Toronto. "I mean, when you first look at the press release, it looks like it's serious, but as you keep reading it gets more and more absurd."

"They actually show a chart where they are trying to compare the most commonly consumed vegetables," he adds. "You start asking yourself, 'What the heck does this have to do with Cards Against Humanity?'"

This chart is from the market research conducted by the makers of Cards Against Humanity to determine what food stuff should feature in their 2017 Super Bowl Ad. (Cards Against Humanity/Medium)

Nothing. But that was the point: Cards Against Humanity wanted to get people talking without the expense of air time.

According to Soberman, there's debate surrounding the actual benefit of advertising during the Super Bowl.

"It is the most watched sportscast every year in the U.S., but the problem is you're competing against the top, probably 20, advertisers in the U.S."

This is one of those things that stands out so much that people are going to talk more about the ad ... than the actual product.- David Soberman

Those advertisers put huge resources and "creative genius" behind the costly ads to create something memorable, Soberman says. And the companies behind those ads have established, well-known brands that consumers flock to.

"You risk getting lost in the mass of ads that are there," Soberman says.

"That's where it's very difficult to know where this worked, because this is one of those things that stands out so much that people are going to talk more about the ad ... than the actual product."


Confused publicity is … good publicity?

While it remains to be seen whether or not the ad paid off for Cards Against Humanity, one thing is certain: people did talk.

"At the end of the day, what you're interested in as a company … is trying to increase purchase intent for your product."

The interesting thing about how this ad achieves that, Soberman says, is that it's so absurd. 

"When you do something that's different, you have a chance to stand out."

To hear more from David Soberman on the Cards Against Humanity ad, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.