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Super Bowl ads love celebrities, but are they worth the price tag?

Willem Dafoe does his best Marilyn Monroe impression for a Snickers commercial.

Willem Defoe is wearing a dress. Christopher Walken has a sock puppet. Jeff Goldblum is playing the piano.

This may sound like the description of a bonkers Hollywood cocktail party. But the party – such as it is – will actually arrive in millions of homes this weekend, as these scenes play out in Super Bowl ads.

The big game has always been a big gamble for marketers, with huge viewership numbers and a rapt audience that has come to anticipate (and willingly sit through) splashy commercial breaks. But in recent years, the stakes have been much higher. You see, people just don't watch good old television any more. At least, not like they used to: live, on a television set, and in great numbers concentrated on a single program.

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But the Super Bowl feels like the good old days. Last year, in Canada, 9.2 million people on average in Canada watched the big game on either CTV or RDS. In the United States, a record 114 million people tuned in to NBC. That's a huge opportunity for advertisers – and a problem, since the field of ads is crowded and creative. It takes a lot to get noticed. And it's important they do: In the U.S., advertisers are reportedly spending up to $5-million (U.S.) for 30 seconds of air time. In Canada, it's up to roughly $200,000 (Canadian), according to sources. That's before the cost of even making the ad, and marketers need to make a return on that investment by resonating with viewers. For many, that means it's time to turn on the star power.

This year, U.S. ads have comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen promoting Bud Light; Liam Neeson discussing the future in his alluring growl for LG; a town populated with Ryan Reynolds clones for Hyundai; Helen Mirren scolding drunk drivers for Budweiser; Drake revisiting his hit Hotline Bling for (of course) a phone company; and a portrait of Steven Tyler entirely made of Skittles, for Skittles – we could go on and on. One ad for Mexican avocados has even imprisoned Scott Baio in a future alien dystopia.

But do these eye-catching celebrity shills have any impact on the advertiser?

It's certainly a major investment: It can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars just to hire a celebrity for a one-off big game ad (or short campaign that kicks off in the game) depending on the calibre of the star. In the grand scheme of things, adorable puppies are much cheaper.

That may be, partly, the point: Casting a big-name celebrity is somewhat akin to carrying a purse spangled with a constellation of Louis Vuitton logos. It's conspicuous consumption. The message: Look at all this money we have to throw around, we must be doing stupendously well. In the case of a brand, the implication is that the ability to spend comes from a surfeit of people buying the product, and ergo, the product must be wonderful.

The ad's effectiveness depends to a great extent on the quality of the ad's script and the relevance of the celebrity in question to the brand's image. But, in general, some research suggests that it may not be worth the money.

Ace Metrix, an L.A.-based firm that evaluates the effectiveness of ads, and helps some advertisers prescreen theirs before airing, has found that star-studded commercials over all tend to make a smaller impact with viewers. The firm measures ads based on a survey of 500 viewers, distributed across geography, age, gender and income similar to the U.S. population, who are asked to rate ads based on a number of factors – including intent to purchase the product, likeability and whether they would watch it again. It then assigns a score based on a composite of those answers.

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In last year's game, on average, ads starring celebrities scored seven points lower on that scale than ads that did not star big names. The only ad starring celebrities in the top ten best-rated commercials in the firm's research, was the "Brady Bunch" parody for Snickers starring Danny Trejo and Steve Buscemi.

"Signing a high-priced talent doesn't necessarily mean success," said Ace Metrix CEO Peter Daboll. In Snickers' case, he said, the stars were well-used in the storyline of the ad: Portraying Marcia Brady's angry id as an axe-wielding actor known for playing villainous types, was evocative. Steve Buscemi's sardonic stand-in for Jan, whining "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," was a surprising and humorous way to cap off that story. "It's more about the story," Mr. Daboll said. "It's not enough for a celebrity to stand there and say: 'Buy this because I'm Kim Kardashian.'"

Indeed, Super Bowl ads are becoming more about those stories – and advertisers are paying for more time in which to tell them. In 2011, just 16 per cent of brand ads in the U.S. broadcast were more than 60 seconds long. (That count does not include the network's own short promotional spots.) Last year, nearly 40 per cent were longer than a minute, according to Kantar Media.

But a star may not convey the best story. In her research, Margaret Campbell, a marketing professor at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business, has found that viewers are often more likely to absorb the negative associations with a given celebrity than the positive ones.

In a 2012 paper published in the journal Social Influence, Prof. Campbell outlined a number of experiments that showed that when a celebrity endorsed a brand, the traits people associated with that celebrity did transfer to their image of the brand; but that negative associations were much more easily transferred than positive ones.

"There's also the whole component that consumers know that they're being marketed to," Prof. Campbell said. "So people will tend to be skeptical of the positive – because marketers say positive things – and that gives a little more strength to the negative as well."

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This effect is much more risky in long-term endorsement deals, where there is a higher risk of a star behaving badly while still attached to a brand – people still associate Jell-o with Bill Cosby, although he has not appeared in an ad for years. But even with short-term campaigns, if people have negative opinions of a star, a brand could suffer for it. And they don't even have to behave badly.

"It doesn't matter how popular a celebrity is, they are always polarizing. You'll always find the haters," Mr. Daboll said. "In an ad, I'd always choose an animal over a celebrity."

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