Venerable US journalist Dan Rather took time out of his Sunday to ask his 2.7 million Twitter followers: ‘Am I the only viewer who thinks that so far these may be the worst [Super] Bowl commercials ever?’
Which would have been discouraging enough if it was just a spot of hyperbolic grumbling from one of America’s most trusted newsmen. But Rather was 35 when the first Super Bowl took place in 1967, and it’s entirely possible he was making a considered comparison.
Rather was not alone in his assessment, either. The response to this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads on social media seemed tepid at best, and both trade and consumer press converged on the opinion that the commercials suffered from a lack of creative ideas (or rather an overreliance on the same idea – celebrity endorsers).
Perhaps more damning were the results of USA Today’s Ad Meter, which is decided by a panel of viewers. Last year, the winning spot was considered a relative dud because it topped the ranking with a score of 6.82, while the previous five winners all got higher than seven. This year, pet food brand The Farmer’s Dog was able to claim the number one spot with a score of just 6.56.
Not everyone marked 2023 as the nadir of Super Bowl advertising, though. System1, which measures people’s emotional reactions to ads to gauge their effectiveness, gave this year’s crop of commercials an average star rating of three out of five, which was an improvement on 2022 when the ads only managed a 2.6.
According to System1, Disney’s ad celebrating its 100th anniversary was the most effective of the bunch, and it was also the first Super Bowl ad in two years to earn a five-star rating.
Jon Evans, System1’s chief customer officer, said about Disney: ‘In a Super Bowl so big on nostalgic references it's no surprise the brand that owns the world's biggest IPs won.’
He added: ‘M&Ms played the media like a fiddle with their "spokes-candy retirement" stunt and won second place on the night. And T-Mobile came third with Travolta's Grease pastiche – another cultural reference on a night studded with them.’
But Evans also concluded that brands played it safe at this year’s Super Bowl, relying on ‘tried and true’ nostalgic references. It was to be expected, he argued, because marketing departments are unlikely to gamble with $6-$7m of media spend at a time when they are already under the scrutiny of their finance chiefs amid a tightening economy.
We’d agree that brands leaned too heavily on celebrity endorsers and dated pop culture references this year, nonetheless there were several ads that were interesting and seem like they'll do their job.
Temu’s debut spot, for instance. For those who are not familiar with the brand, Temu is a Chinese shopping app with a TikTok-style feed that has been climbing America’s app charts since it was released at the end of 2022. Its ad, Shop Like A Billionaire, is no one’s idea of a good time, but it explained the app in about three seconds and then used an earworm of a jingle to ram home its name and main benefit (it’s so cheap you'll feel rich). Temu also ran the ad twice, which never hurts.
Similarly, Squarespace’s spot with Adam Driver was not laugh-out-loud funny or especially clever, but it was witty enough and, unlike a lot of the ads we watched, you only needed to give it perhaps 15% of your attention to come away with the pertinent message – ‘Squarespace is a website that makes websites’.
Hellmann’s spot was clunky, but it had all the right ingredients. The ad featuring John Hamm and Brie Larson was starry and charming and communicated the brand's message that mayonnaise brings leftovers to life in no uncertain terms. We doubt even Unilever-sceptic Terry Smith could find fault with that one. For sheer yucks, though, Dunkin’s effort with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez probably won the day.
And then there was streaming service Tubi. It seems that every year now there is an ad that employs Machiavellian methods to grab people’s attention, and it’s always the spot that gets the ad industry talking the most.
Two years ago it was Reddit’s Superb Owl spot and last year it was Coinbase’s floating QR code. This year it was Tubi’s Interface Interruption, which used Fox Sports announcers Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen to prank viewers into thinking that someone was fiddling with their remote.
As best we can tell at this early stage, the ad accomplished what it set out to do in getting people talking, but it is an idea that will yield sharply diminishing returns, and the worst thing would be if hoards of brands tried to recreate it.
But then judging by the responses so far, we suspect that few brands and agencies will look back on this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads for instruction and inspiration.
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