The Super Bowl is the single biggest advertising event of the year. This year the Super Bowl reached 103.4 million people and a 30-second ad cost $5 million. To give some spending perspective, Sunday Night Football, the highest rated weekly television show, reached 18.6 million people and cost just shy of $700,000 for a 30-second ad. The Academy Awards, the nation’s second-largest television event reached 32.9 million people in 2017. This year, a 30-second spot in the Academy Awards will cost around $2.5 million dollars.
But, the Super Bowl is different. It is more than an advertising opportunity. It is a shared cultural, communal experience that brings people together like nothing else in American television. People don’t just watch the game; they gather together, create celebrations around it with friends and family, they root for their team, and they watch the ads.
We can gain some insights into the cultural zeitgeist from the Super Bowl ads. Big advertisers invest significantly in research so their messages will resonate with 100 million+ viewers. This year we saw several trends in messaging that give us a sense of how advertisers read their customers – and reflect the consumer mood. First and foremost was the use of humor.
1. Humor Wins
Americans seem tired of the complex, often confounding political and global events around them. Advertisers bet, and I think they bet correctly, that Americans need to be warmed up, nestled, comforted and amused. Not with brawling humor that looks for guffaws, but with low-key, warm, clever, tongue-in-cheek humor, delivered effortlessly and seamlessly.
The best of the Super Bowl commercials scored big with engaging, culturally tuned-in, sometimes sophisticated or unexpected humor. Doritos and Mountain Dew paired a cool Morgan Freeman and ‘hot’ Peter Dinklage lip-synching rap songs for Mountain Dew Ice and Doritos Blaze. The NFL’s send up of the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing starring Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. performing an imperfect but utterly charming recreation of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey’s “Time of My Life” dirty dance — backed up by the New York Giant’s offensive line, is pure and simple fun, adorable and embraceable. Amazon’s ad for Alexa, who apparently lost her voice for the Super Bowl, featured an excellent performance by Jeff Bezos playing himself with substitute voices for Alexa by a host of celebrities — each chosen for age and demographic appeal. Sophisticated, but accessible, intelligent humor was well executed here. We are definitely in on the joke.
Tide, the world’s leading laundry detergent, took a creative leap with its meta ad — an ad within an ad, featuring actor, David Harbour, currently starring in Netflix’s Stranger Things. A 45-second Tide ad in the first quarter of the game imitates typical Super Bowl commercials for cars, beer, soft drinks, an insurance company. But, instead, “it’s a Tide Ad” –- and a set up for the next three tongue-in-cheek 15-second spots -– each reinforcing the theme, “if it’s clean, it’s got to be Tide.”
2. When We See Women, They Are Strong
In keeping with the #MeToo climate, we saw no sexual innuendo and no scantily clad or objectified women. Instead, the women we see in these ads are empowered or funny. Cardi B, one of the substitute voices for Alexa in Amazon’s ad, is totally in charge (and funny) when she responds to the question, “How far is the moon?” We see alpine skier Lindsey Vonn as she trains hard and seriously to prepare for her return to the Olympics after a knee injury, accompanied appropriately by Alicia Keys’ hit, “Girl on Fire.” Kerry Washington is the perfectly toned, strong, clear, but even-tempered voice for T Mobile’s “We Are All Born Equal.” For this ad, T Mobile reversed course from its typically bawdier price promotions to send a message of racial and gender equality.
3. Diversity and Doing Good: Pulling at Heartstrings
Several commercials went for the tear ducts by celebrating togetherness, service, diversity and giving back. Verizon’s “Answering the Call” paired disaster victims with the first responders who helped them, “They answer the call, our job is to make sure they get it.” Coke has a Coke for “he, she, her, them, for all.” Budweiser forsook the Clydesdales (one was in a Tide ad!) to showcase the company’s role in bottling water for disaster relief and celebrating the employees who do it. Toyota’s “Good Odds” tells the heart-wrenching, but uplifting, true story of Canadian skier, Lauren Woolstencroft, now a Paralympic gold medalist (Toyota is also an Olympic and Paralympic sponsor). Stella Artois employs Matt Damon as a pitchman for a “chalice” – a portion of proceeds will help provide access to fresh running water in the developing world through Water.org. Hyundai’s “Hope Detector” brings together survivors of childhood cancers with Hyundai owners whose purchases helped fund childhood cancer research. Each of these ads speak to the heart to align their brand with “doing good,” something we all appreciate, especially millenials who favor brands associated with a cause.
4. Our Celebrity Culture Demands Celebrity
It’s important to note that most Super Bowl commercials featured celebrities. Advertisers use celebrities to cut through clutter and to get quick attention. Celebrities are our royalty. With millions of social media followers, they are brands themselves. So, why not use them to advantage. Hardly any Super Bowl advertiser did without them.
The more important point I think is that good ads get watched and can change minds. And, what makes ads good are great ideas that root the brand in the world they live in. Recognizing cultural cues, understanding how customers feel about their lives and all that surround them may be the most important tool you have to develop winning brand communications and stories. Invest in understanding the world your customers live in, learn the correct pitch and tone in which to address them, imbue your brand with images that reflect your customers’ aspirations and concerns, find the creative talent that can shape this information into a strong idea and an engaging story for your brand. That is the way your brand can win in today’s increasingly challenging, changing and fragmented world of media.