News & Views

Super Bowl clock runs out on bold brands

by Chris Barth

Not sure if youve noticed, but things are a little tense in America these days. Protesters fill the streets campaigning against regression to an unequal past. The media is under fire from both business models and business moguls. Our president eats pizza with a knife and fork.

Our first attempt at national unity was on display on Sunday night, when three quarters of American households and the third-largest-ever audience of 111 million people turned their eyes to the obnoxiously sobriquet-ed Big Game. On paper, it was perhaps the best game in Super Bowl history, complete with an epic comeback, a couple of superhuman catches, and an overtime victory by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. But times have changed since 2001, when an unlikely Super Bowl victory by the Patriots was an act of fate in the wake of 9/11. This time, when the cheating-scandal-tarnished, Trump-endorsed red, white and blue pulled off the impossible, it felt to many like the latest turn in the darkest timeline.

But the real opportunity to resolve tension wasn’t on the field or in the ridiculously expensive seats. It was in the commercials. And in that space – the last great live, shared, mass advertising experience – the world’s biggest brands gave us… a distracted mess of mealy-mouthed mission statements, meaningless technology, and ads that made you ask ‘Why in the world did they spend millions of dollars on that?’ And not in the good way.

This was a bad year for Super Bowl commercials. And, quite honestly, that may be our new normal. Astronomically high costs (this year a 30-second spot went for $5m) have made it difficult for brands to justify the kind of creativity that once shined at the Super Bowl – a sort of risk-averse variation of too-big-to-fail. Super Bowl 51 featured a few touching ads, a few intriguing ads, a few beautifully produced ads, a few funny ads, and a few technologically impressive ads. But for the second year in a row, the Super Bowl came up short and failed to produce a truly great commercial.

Passing for purpose
The most important and timely ads of the year were no doubt those that took a position in the political quagmire. Coke re-ran its 2014 Super Bowl spot, in which people sing the national anthem in different languages, showing that it has valued diversity for years. Budweiser highlighted its founders humble beginnings as a poor immigrant, showing that even huge and often jingoistic brands can come from foreign beginnings (and, indeed, return to foreign ownership). Audi ruminated on changing the narrative of gender equality, lest a father have to explain to his derby-car-racing daughter that shed get paid less than her male compatriots (or, as a women, be left off of the brands board of management).

Admirable sentiments, all. But lets not award prizes for basic decency. Im not impressed that your multi-national brand believes people should be treated like people. This isnt the 1950s, even though it increasingly feels that way.

A couple of ads did take a slightly more active stance. Airbnbs last-minute commercial featured a slideshow of diverse faces and the declarative statement ‘We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept, followed by the hashtag #weaccept.

Meanwhile, the games most controversial ad was neutered by a gun-shy Fox, which forced little-known brand 84 Lumber to edit out a portion of its ad featuring a wall between Mexico and the US. The ad follows a mother and daughter as they journey across Mexico, but 84 Lumber was forced to fall back on the years-old GoDaddy strategy of sending people online to find the remainder of the ad. When viewers followed the brand up on that offer, they were greeted by a crashed website, perhaps as some sort of unintentional metaphor.

Maybe we’re asking for too much, expecting anthemic statements of purpose and strong condemnations of injustice in the context of America’s biggest sporting event. And kudos to the handful of brands that stuck a toe in the water and started to put forth positions on so-called hot-button issues. But with news swirling about conscientious media buying, a groundswell of support for progressive politics, and a fragmented audience that coalesces only a few times a year, we wanted a little more than vague posturing about inclusion and equality. This seemed like a missed opportunity for brands to plant a flag and stand by it, rather than just salute someone else’s.

Shiny objects
As has become custom in the last few years, Super Bowl 51s ads also featured an underlying current of technological experimentation. Machine Learning got a moment under the bright lights thanks to IBM Watson and H&R Block, which have teamed up to take incredibly interesting technology and apply it to the most boring thing in the world—income taxes. Intel rigged up drones in the sky to serve as a backdrop for Lady Gaga’s trust fall into NRG Stadium. An extra-short Amazon spot teased the non-existent drone delivery service Amazon Prime Air, in a bid to drive PR that seems destined to be overlooked.

On the industry nuts-and-bolts side, Australian wine goliath Yellow Tail fascinated ad nerds by buying dozens of local spots in an effort to circumvent AB InBevs nationwide alcohol exclusivity, spending additional millions to make sure people saw its boilerplate animal + girl in bikini + DJd party commercial. And the real-time focus that spawned hundreds of Twitter war rooms took a turn on the main broadcast, with Snickers producing a live ad that felt fake and Hyundai producing an in-game spot that was heavy on technology and light on idea.

A few diamonds in the rough
The game wasnt entirely devoid of entertaining commercials, though. On the celebrity front, a Kia ad featuring Melissa McCarthy as a slapstick environmentalist scored well with the online rankings. Jon Lovitz made a typically weird cameo in an Avocados From Mexico spot, Christopher Walken recited N*Sync lyrics to Justin Timberlake to sell ‘antioxidant infusion drinks, and Bud Lites drinking dog Spuds Mackenzie came back from the dead. Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart made marijuana puns on behalf of T-Mobile in a spot that merited re-watching. (And also produced the most ridiculous sentence in this recap.) Magic Mike met Mr. Clean, who went on to gyrate his way into hearts, although that ads reveal (spoiler alert: he’s your schlubby husband) left something to be desired. AB InBev put its Busch beer back in the national spotlight with a charming and silly ad reminiscent of Will Ferrells iconic local ads for Milwaukees Best. And Netflix made its Super Bowl debut, teaming up with Eggo to tease season two of Stranger Things, still nearly ten long months away.

But these bright spots weren’t enough to overcome this year’s glut of mediocre messaging and weak-spined stances. In the upside down of 2017, we were looking for someone to slay the Demogorgon, not assert their right to exist in its world.