This year’s Super Bowl could only be described as...ambivalent. The mere announcement of a Super Bowl was met with excitement for those eager to celebrate, and a dread for those who know what is to follow afterwards. For many families, the past year battered them financially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 2020 also saw the death of many small businesses, careers, and livelihoods. To spend a day hailing corporate felt strange, hypocritical, & morbid, especially considering there were ~7,500 healthcare workers who attended the game, who would probably be working the next 2 weeks saving the lives of the other 14,000 or so people watching below them. Despite all the changes made this year, some things at Super Bowl LV remained the same, like a big halftime show, Tom Brady playing for another title, and of course, ads.
Before we even knew who was going to be in the Super Bowl, brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Audi, and Budweiser dropped out of running TV ads. Budweiser went a step further, announcing that their budget was going directly towards supporting vaccination awareness. In essence, this is great: brands recognize the severity of the situation, and the best thing they can do for their brand long-term is to help in the recovery of this pandemic. It follows that good marketing practice of “do things, tell people about it.” But for many, the cynicism was quick to kick in. It’s obvious that these announcements, whether the brands are sincere in them or not, are for PR. It’s not like these brands have anything to lose either; consumers will still buy their product. But these announcements also only work for established brands with a Super Bowl tradition; otherwise I’d be happy to say that NinetyEight was going to advertise for the Super Bowl, but we have decided, in light of the pandemic, to use that budget to help brands that need Gen-Z expertise.
The NFL got creative during the big game as well. In the absence of the majority of the stadium, the NFL took the opportunity to allow fans to be in the stadium...as a cardboard cutout. Fans could pay $100 for a cardboard cutout of themselves to be displayed in the Super Bowl, and finally, maybe make it on TV.
Although Budweiser was absent from the Super Bowl, the parent company Anheuser-Busch spared no expense in going all out on the big game. Budweiser’s sister brand, Bud Light, invited @dudewithasign to hold his iconic cardboard sign at the Super Bowl to advertise their lemonade seltzer. Dude with a Sign, a creation of f*ckjerry/Jerry Media, gained popularity during the pandemic for his blunt, truth-telling signs. His appearance at the Super Bowl for Bud Light was clever, but also cemented the inauthenticity and hypocrisy of his brand.
Pepsi was also supposed to be absent, but just looking around the stadium would tell you otherwise. Having sponsored the halftime show, Pepsi’s branding and logo were slapped everywhere. This sponsorship paid off, driving the largest branded conversation on Twitter. (Though let’s be honest, no one was actually talking about Pepsi.)
Perhaps the most notable “not a TV ad” ad was Reddit’s “sort of a TV ad” ad. Reddit bought 5 seconds of Super Bowl screen time, airing a static message just long enough for viewers to take a pic of it. The message quickly spread online through social media, including Reddit, becoming one of the most discussed ads online, despite being the shortest.
Standard good (Super Bowl) ad rules still apply here. Leverage cultural moments, tell a story, utilize humor/effects/music/etc to enhance your story. Speak your truth, catch people’s attention, get people talking about you. So why is it that nearly every single commercial this year missed the mark? This year, more than ever, felt like a mad scramble to sign whoever the heck corporate could name off the top of their head, then have them do [insert the most insane thing ever here.] It’s formulaic, and it feels almost lazy, like someone filled out a Mad Libs for the script.
Over the years, the very practice of watching Super Bowl commercials has become meta; so much so that Super Bowl commercials now have commercials, for their commercials. And there’s the emergence of weirdos who watch the game to review the ads (like me).
My ad reviewing criteria is simple: if I liked the ad, it was a good ad. If I didn’t like the ad, it was a bad ad. If I had to go to Adweek or AdAge to read about the ad, it was a bad ad. If the ad doesn’t make sense to me, it’s a bad ad. If your entire ad is dedicated to showing how much budget you blew on the ad, it’s a bad ad. I don’t have to be objective, because consumers are not. Advertisers seem to forget these things.
For example, the Bud Light commercial referenced its older Bud Light commercials. Ok? So? Who was this commercial for? An advertiser might say “wow, they referenced all their previous Super Bowl spots, that’s so clever, this is a good ad.” As a consumer, how am I supposed to know what those references are? More importantly, does that contribute to the enjoyment of the commercial? The commercial does none of that, and thus falls short for me.
In contrast, Fiverr’s Opportunity Knocks commercial stood out as one of the best commercials of this Super Bowl. It leverages pop culture, yet even if viewers don’t understand the Four Seasons Total Landscaping reference, it’s still comprehensible and funny by itself. The story is realistic to the brand while being relevant to the consumer; and while it is still a big budget commercial, the money doesn’t overshadow the message.
Some of the best ads this year cost no money; although maybe it would be unfair to call them ads anymore. It’s clear that advertising--no--marketing is changing, especially for the Super Bowl. Marketing must improve the brand’s perception in the eyes of the consumer, and having a big budget is no longer going to cut it. In fact, if buyers feel that you wasted 20 million for 30 seconds of clout instead of improving your product, service, or your consumer’s lives, what does that say about your brand? Strategy, PR, and the opportunity to be different all factor in, and above all, appeal to your target consumer. Maybe next year we can see ads that no longer check boxes for “has humor” or “features x celebrity” and see ones that truly resonate with us viewers.