Crafting memorable Super Bowl advertising remains a formidable challenge, as companies try to navigate the complicated waters of celebrity endorsements, corporate branding, hot-button issues and commercials designed to pitch products.
The takeaway from Sunday, however, was too many sponsors simply trying too hard, with the few witty, surprising and emotional spots genuinely standing out. While it’s popular to say “The ads were better than the game,” they collectively weren’t, even in the midst of a low-scoring affair that didn’t produce a touchdown through three quarters.
More image-oriented ads represent a long-term investment in a marketer’s profile, although given the size of the showcase, they can invite controversy. Yet there was relatively little of that, with several commercials that did feature women in prominent ways, tying into that cultural moment.
Sunday’s game offered the usual mix of familiar Super Bowl standbys (Budweiser, Pepsi), new players trying to get noticed (Bubly, anyone?) and blockbuster movies looking to boost awareness on the year’s biggest annual stage – this year, a category largely dominated by Disney.
In terms of overall product groups, tech companies left a sizable impression, with T-Mobile airing a spot in each quarter, joined by Microsoft, Amazon and Google. Notably, there was also a push for TV content from streaming services via Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, and even an ad from the Washington Post.
Based on first impressions of Sunday’s big game, there wasn’t a single spot we’ll be discussing years from now, a la Apple’s “1984” ad, or even Volkswagen’s Darth Vader kid of a few years ago. But there were standouts, both in terms of advertisers that scored, and those who seem to have squandered the opportunity, given the more than $5 million shelled out for a 30-second spot.
Bud Light/Game of Thrones – Many viewers were no doubt stunned and perhaps confused to see the beer ad morph into a “Game of Thrones” tie-in, but it was genuinely surprising, and in terms of shaking up a day filled with otherwise predictable creative, kind of awesome.
Google – Both of its spots – one featuring the military, the other about how words are translated – were arresting and on-point in terms of its brand, providing a ray of hope about the human experience, speckled with fleeting acknowledgment of the darker side.
Microsoft – The company’s ad showcasing special game controllers for kids who need them was not only uplifting but an example of the great things that technology can help people accomplish.
Hulu – The audacity of airing an ad for the dystopian drama “The Handmaid’s Tale” in the midst of the Super Bowl nearly carried the day.
Budweiser – Using Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” to tout beer brewed with wind power, the callback to previous Budweiser big-game spots contained a mix of advocacy and product pushing that also happened to be visually arresting.
Stella Artois – On their own, the sendups of “Sex and the City” and “The Big Lebowski” – and the characters played by Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges – would have been mildly clever. But in a day filled with incongruous celebrity endorsements, mashing the two together felt like an inspired coup.
The Washington Post – Sober and spare, the paper’s one-minute ad offered a broad statement on behalf of journalism, saying, “Knowing keeps us free.” The Tom Hanks narration was a nice touch.
Disney – The combination of “Captain Marvel” and “Toy Story 4” right after the game and a pre-kickoff spot for “Avengers: Endgame” punctuated a quiet Super Bowl for the movie studios, with a modest assist from Universal’s “Fast and Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw.”
Kia – Amid a surplus of celebrity-driven ads, an understated one that celebrated the ordinary people that produce its cars stood out from the crowd.
Turbotax – A robot child who yearns to do taxes set the bar for creepiness, on a day with a fair amount of it.
Olay – The company’s first Super Bowl ad – a horror-movie spoof featuring scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar – wasted that casting coup, where even the slasher wants to discuss her great-looking skin.
Planters – It’s hard to tell what part of this ad you’re supposed to like –the fact that the Planters spokes-nut has a Peanut-mobile, drives it like a lunatic, or lives in the same neighborhood as Charlie Sheen.
Devour Frozen Foods – There was some promise in the idea of confusing love of the company’s frozen dishes with porn (the ad is titled “Food Porn”), but no.
Pepsi – The soft-drink giant presented a star-studded spoof built around people asking, “Is Pepsi OK?,” which really just reminds viewers that a lot of people like Coke better. As advertising goes, it’s a classic self-own.
T-Mobile – The company bought an ad in each quarter, but didn’t seem to have anything particularly interesting to say, other than offering freebies.
Avocados from Mexico – Not to be a stickler, but what does a dog show have to do with avocados?
Yellowtail – Whatever the wine tastes like, the company’s ad tastes bor-ring.
Michelob Ultra – See, robots can do everything better than us, but they don’t get to enjoy drinking beer. Of course, they’ll have the last laugh when they rise up against their human masters and take over.
Turkish Airlines – Nothing about the Turkish Airlines ad made any sense, beginning with the assumption that anyone would be moved to go online to find out.
Audi – Should a car commercial ever involve the Heimlich maneuver? No, it shouldn’t.
Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer -- Frankly, the sharks might as well eat whoever dreamt up that ad campaign.
Burger King – Andy Warhol? It’s a talker, but for all the questions the ad invited, nothing about it really made you want to run out and eat a burger. Or to quote a more memorable ad, where’s the beef?