By Rich Romig and Samuel Kwietniak
You could argue that with each increasing Roman numeral, there are fewer and fewer Super Bowl “ads” to review. Sure, there are 30- and 60-second short, brand-sponsored films, special effects bonanzas, comedy routines, music videos—most with a little product demo or placement within—but many aren’t “commercials” in the selling-something sense of the word.
In one of the most effective, laudable AND memorable Super Bowl ad of the past 10 years, the product was as front and center as you can get. The medium WAS the message: 2010’s “Parisian Love” for Google Search still blows me away for its simplicity, humanity and relatability. We’ve not seen many like it since, though.
But critique and get down in the weeds with these ads is what we promised to do. So, what to make of this year’s crop of contenders?
Lots of well-shot but “meh” work, a few bad historical touchstone-product mashups that made little sense (we’re talking ‘bout you, Dodge RAM), a LOT of heartstrings stuff, and a few worthy ones.
The good news is, the era of the puppy/monkey/baby is over. No longer can the hijinks of a CGI monster alone make people smile at a brand. Crowd-pleasing, big-tent jokes have lost their fangs in our hyper-partisan world. And celebrity cameos, unless gleefully unexpected (here’s lookin’ at you, Danny Devito), are almost entirely without hype. Who cares what soda Morgan Freeman drinks when you already saw him drink it on Twitter?
No, in our post-truth, post-modern society, brands can either assert their claims to righteous values, or poke fun at the ones who try to.
Whether marketers were attempting to make us happy by triggering metal detectors:
…or showing us pictures of ourselves:
…or simply reminding us that avocado toast is a thing:
…this was the year of woke-gloating. Sadly, if you can afford a Super Bowl ad, chances are you’re not woke (unless you’re Blackture—definitely woke). But that’s exactly why most of these ads felt so phony. How are you going to co-opt MLK’s speech to make a pitch for RAM trucks? Why would anyone believe a word you say?
Of the many pitches for goodwill, only a couple rang even close to believable.
Coca Cola’s manifesto on uniqueness made sense for a brand that puts a million different names on their bottles. They’re constantly rolling out new versions and new flavors, tailored to your individual lifestyle, celebrating you and all you stand for. Sure.
Budweiser, also, seemed deserving of their self-bestowed praise. They did bring water to disaster survivors. If they want a chance to remind us of it, they can have it because they kinda’ actually did save lives. That’s lot more than your time-traveling Kia can say. Or your religiously tolerant Toyota.
Jeep took an artful swing at this trend with their “Manifesto” spot. Targeting everyone that waxes poetic about the stuff they make, and how that stuff is designed to make the world fitter/happier/more productive, Jeep shut up and let their Rubicon do the talking. Nice.
But the real winners of the night were the ones that acknowledged, and played with, our current and complete lack of trust.
These were the ads that captured the ultimate mentality of our times: “Is this real? Is this actually happening?” Tide—and Australia’s tourism board—nailed the illusion perfectly. The campaign with Chief Hopper completely defied expectations—again and again. By sowing the seeds of doubt early on, couch-fulls of people began to place bets on the authenticity of each spot through the night. Every ad ended up being for Tide—just as they said. And none of those god-forsaken pods in sight!
And the emotional spots—like Toyota’s defying-the-odds ad featuring Paralympic skier Lauren Woolstonecroft—always bring a lump to the throat (and no, it wasn’t the Buffalo dip).
Though Woody Allen is a cultural pariah these days, his Annie Hall, which won Best Picture 40 years ago, cost roughly $5 million to make. A 30-second ad that aired during tonight’s Super Bowl, seen by around 115 million Americans, cost about the same. Does that equate to obscenely overpriced entertainment, or do these spots actually generate higher sales?
Hell, if any of us knows for sure. But we DO know that the ads always generate buzz, conversation on marketing sites, and dialogue in the social sphere and at the office that lasts for a little while anyway. And usually that’s enough of a return for the companies that shell out seven or eight figures (because there were a lot of :60s) to take the plunge.
Maybe the very best ad of the night, however, was a short spot early on for YouTube TV—by virtue of their delightful realization that what viewers want most from their Super Bowl commercials, is no Super Bowl commercials at all.
Remember last year's Super Bowl ads? Take a trip down memory lane:
About the Author
Rich Romig is Executive Creative Director at Harte Hanks.More Content by RIch Romig