Top Ads Mix Food Focus With Value

Casual-dining restaurants dominated a study of the first quarter's most effective TV commercials, as measured by Ace Metrix.

The advertising research firm ranked all restaurant industry commercials based on its proprietary Ace Score, which measures how persuasive and watchable advertisements are based on ratings from surveyed viewers.

Casual-dining chains accounted for seven of the 10 top-scoring commercials that debuted from January to March.

Most of the spots broadened their appeal to several demographic groups, especially women, by incorporating food photography and other cues for food quality, as well as low price points conveying a value message, said Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of marketing of Ace Metrix.

"Advertisers have found a solid framework that's working well: Strong creative built around food shots, coupled with a strong value message," Symonds said.

Olive Garden had three commercials in Ace Metrix's list of the 10 ads with the highest Ace Score in the first quarter, including the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, with Ace Scores of 653 and 643, respectively. The restaurant industry's average Ace Score in the first quarter was 579 out of a possible 950.

Olive Garden's top-scoring ad promoted its 3 Course Italian Dinner for $12.95.

Olive Garden's No. 2 ad, touting Baked Pasta Romanas, and another spot for its Passion for Parmesan promotion, which earned the No. 9 ranking with a 628 Ace Score, spent the bulk of the ads' 30-second duration discussing only the menu items over food shots. In each commercial, however, Olive Garden tacked on a value proposition with a quick promotion for one of the chain's $6.95 offers: Chicken and Potato Florentine Soup or the Create Your Own Lunch menu.

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Applebee's and LongHorn Steakhouse took a similar approach to mixing the commercials' food focus with a value proposition.

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In two spots that debuted the first week of January and tied into New Year's resolution season, Applebee's promoted its Under 550 Calories menu. A steak-focused commercial grabbed the No. 3 spot with an Ace Score of 640, and a shrimp-focused ad was No. 8 with an Ace Score of 629. Both commercials ended with a voice-over adding, "Get half-price appetizers late-night."

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LongHorn earned the No. 4 ranking, and an Ace Score of 639, by promoting premium items like its Lobster Baked Potato and Sirloin. But the brand also quickly touted its new Lunch Combinations starting at $7.99 in the last five seconds of the commercial.

Watch the 10 top-scoring ads

Price points were more prominent for some brands with the first quarter's 10 highest-scoring ads. Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen tied for the No. 5 ranking, each with an Ace Score of 633, for promoting the $10 Dinner Box and an offer for a second Blizzard for only 99 cents, respectively.

Red Lobster earned the No. 10 spot and an Ace Score of 621 for a 15-second spot advertising its $15 Four Course Seafood Feast. It was a shorter version of a previous commercial featuring Red Lobster manager Jody Gonzalez, who was one of several employees to star in the brand's "Sea Food Differently" campaign.

Symonds said Pizza Hut and Red Lobster benefited from the foundation they laid with previous advertisements, such as the campaign for the Big Dinner Box at Pizza Hut or Red Lobster's prior "Sea Food Differently" ads, which were 30 seconds or longer.

"If you've done a good job of laying the groundwork for your messaging, it gives you some flexibility to efficiently remind your customers later," he said. "Subway has the path to do that with the $5 foot-long in any month. They did that with 'Februany' in February, and they were close to making the top 10 this time."

Taco Bell was an exception on Ace Metrix's list for a few reasons, Symonds noted. The spot, which had an Ace Score of 630 for the No. 7 ranking, advertised the chain's promotion tying the Five Buck Box in with a giveaway of a PlayStation Vita. It also was the only commercial among the 10 highest-scoring ads of the quarter to appeal mostly to men.

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For the rest of the commercials in this list, women rated the advertisements higher than men did, Ace Metrix found. For six of the spots, all for one of the casual-dining brands, the demographic group giving commercials the highest ratings was women 50 years or older.

Symonds speculated that this trend could continue as the United States' population gets older and as older generations wield more purchasing power.

"There's been a shift in focus of CMOs to recognize that purchasing power lies with older consumers at this point," he said. "More companies across industries are very willing to do that openly. You can see it in the data for these ads. They're intended for older diners. That's who the spots are resonating with, and ultimately that's a good thing."

Ace Metrix counts several restaurant companies among its clients, and is based in Mountain View, Calif.

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