Creatives Assess This Year's Crop of Super Bowl Spots
Paula Maki of mono
What worked? What didn’t? Identifying themes, weighing the impact of prior online exposure
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Though defensive-minded coaches found the Super Bowl shootout cringe-worthy, most everyone else enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining game with the high scoring affair yielding another bonus—a victory for the underdog as the Philadelphia Eagles ended a half-century of gridiron frustration, beating the heralded New England Patriots.

The Big Game, though, was a double-edged sword for the ad community. On one hand, the Super Bowl held audience interest throughout, meaning that advertisers had a chance to shine in the mega-audience spotlight from the opening kickoff to the final play. At the same time, the game was so good that it was a lot for the ads to live up to. And at $5 million-plus on average for a 30-second time slot on NBC, you’ve got a lot of living to do in order to justify your investment.

Looking to see who had the most justification in this year’s ad crop, SHOOT sought out agency creatives for their expert feedback. And sticking with our longstanding annual game, we only solicited those creatives with no axe to grind—meaning they didn’t have any commercials on this year’s Super Bowl and thus could provide an unvarnished assessment of the ads. Here’s a sampling of their observations:

Paula Maki, managing creative director, mono San Francisco, shared a pet peeve about Super Bowl advertising, relating, “Remember when you couldn’t wait until Sunday night to see if Carrie and Mr. Big will finally figure out their relationship or to see which Soprano was going to get whacked this week? There was something magical about a country coming together in front of similar-shaped screens to watch a story unfold without pause, rewind, fast-forward or binge; where no one knows what will happen until it actually happens. In a world of a la carte programming and bespoke content, these universal Sunday night moments have been reduced to the Golden Globes/Grammys/Oscars and—of course—the Super Bowl.”

Maki hearkened back to all this to declare “my disdain for the epidemic of over-sharing ads prior to the game. As a marketer, I get it. “Gotta get those view counts up, gotta maximize the buzz leading up to The Big Game so we can leverage the momentum and justify our company paying $10 million for 60 seconds of airtime.” (Which is approximately the annual GDP of Namibia, but whatever). I get it. But here’s where I draw the line: if you’re going to share your ad prior to game, there’s got to be something big about your ad—something that makes us want to talk about it, share it, at least hit ‘refresh’ on our video players.

“This year there were just a few brands that made me want do that: 
• Amazon—Every year, there’s a brand that says, “Screw it, let’s go for it.” This year the credit goes to Amazon. Not just for all the cameos. But for the simple idea and the A-level performances (that employee’s reaction to Jeff Bezos asking “will it work?” was gold)
• Doritos vs. Dew—This is probably one of those things that marketers especially appreciate in its “innovative use of back-to-back placements.” No civilian American, smashing some Doritos and Dew whilst watching “The Big Game” will turn to his bro and say, “Wow, what an innovative use of back-to-back media placements.” But still. Props.
• Michelob Ultra—While it would be easy to justify my liking of this two-parter “because Chris Pratt,” I liked the charm of it. I liked the twist of the “star-as-extra” in part one, and how they actually followed through with it in part two. I’m actually not a huge fan of Chris Pratt (#TeamAnna) but this one made me smile. 
• Tide FTW! For turning every Super Bowl ad into another Tide ad. And for waiting until game day to do it! #dontstopbelievin #fadetoblack. 

In the overall picture, Maki observed, “The biggest theme I saw this year as opposed to last year is the surprising (and purposeful?) lack of social commentary from the big brands (with some exceptions from Mass Mutual and Verizon). On one hand, maybe this is a good thing. We all get the fact that this was a tough year. Do we need to be reminded on the one day a year Paleo devotees say “f-it” and stuff their faces with carbs and sugar? Maybe our biggest marketers knew that we all just needed a laugh and a dance. But with the past year of natural disasters and national struggles, you’d think more brands would bite on one of our biggest social pain points in a bigger way. Hat tip to Stella Artois and Budweiser for picking an issue that relates most to their product—water—and actually doing something about it. Hat tip to Toyota for breaking free from automobiles and owning mobility and inclusivity in a human and non-preachy way, executed beautifully to boot (side note: where is this Toyota the other 364 days per year?!?! I’m looking at you, Jan).”

Rob Schapiro
Rob Schapiro, chief creative officer of Brunner—which made a major impact at last year’s Super Bowl with its 84 Lumber spot centered on an immigration story—wondered if any brands would take a stand by trying to express their values by commenting on timely or controversial issues. Also in the lead-up to the game, he asked, Will they cater to the 7-layer bean dip party crowd and go wacky? Will their ideas not have been made possible without leveraging social platforms? Or perhaps will they try to ride celebrity coattails to higher ad tracker scores? Thus Schapiro divided his analysis into those four categories: Values; Wacky; Social; and Celebrity

Schapiro cited the following pieces of work under the “Values” heading:
• Stella Artois was the first brand to release their spot. Matt Damon speaking on behalf of clean water. This one won’t rate high. But even if it doesn’t do good for the brand, at least it will help do some good.
• Budweiser’s anthemic execution lived up to what we’ve come to expect from this brand on the Super Bowl. All the ingredients were there. Great cinematography. Music. Storytelling. But no Clydesdales. I’m sure seeing their charitable efforts to deliver water to Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico touched a lot of hearts. Some cynics might scoff that it was self-serving. Based on the spot alone, it seems they really did serve a lot of people in need. 
• In a powerful follow-up to the Paul Harvey ode to farmers from a couple years back, Dodge Ram went with an inspiring MLK speech delivered 50 years ago to the day. The message? Everyone can be great. Brought to you by a truck brand, it was certain to inspire some strong negative reaction. 
• Then there’s the Kickstarter campaign to raise $5.5 million to air a message about global warming. #airmyglobalwarmingad. It came up short. No Super Bowl spot.  Let’s face it. A lot of people don’t want to think during the big game. Which brings us to the next category.

As for the “Wacky,” Shapiro went with:
• Febreze introduced us to Dave, who’s “bleep” don’t stink, and all the people in his life. (It’s a shame they wouldn’t spring for the :60 version.) The spot was well-written and acted. Played dead straight, just as it should be. Except for the overly comedic music track that brought it down a peg for me.
• The Avocados from Mexico spot could go in the Celeb category except that Chris Elliot had to tell people he’s Chris Elliot in the teaser. And couldn’t give away his autograph to save his life. Nice cameo by Chris Elliot. And nice Avocado Toast reference.
• I liked Tide’s strategy of creating a series of 15 second spots that hijacked other brand hallmarks. Of course, everyone in advertising likes self-referential advertising. Of course, since the Super Bowl is all about advertising, I suspect everyone else liked them, too. 
• Oh, one more thing. I hope after the Super Bowl, Bud Light makes it official. The beer brand will no longer milk “Dilly Dilly.”

Going Social, Shapiro singled out:
• Skittles created “The Most Exclusive Commercial Ever Made”? One guy gets to see it? Wait. I don’t get to see it. Ok, now I really want to see it. Those Schwimmer teasers make me want to see it even more. Did I go to the Skittles Facebook Page to see a livestream of his reaction? I’m in the industry. Of course, I did. I bet a lot of kids who eat Skittles went there, too. Did it live up to the pre-game hype? Probably not. But I admire the effort.
• Last year, Hyundai pulled off an ad filmed during the game itself. This year they planned to surprise Hyundai owners as they walked into the game by turning metal detectors into Hope Detectors (#HopeComesStandard). The ambitious idea was not without technical difficulties, but still they brought some attention to a really great program.  
• With an anti-celebrity message and I suspect a more limited budget, Kraft auditioned real families through social media (#FamilyGreatly) to star in its Super Bowl Spot. The idea had good intentions. And the strategy was on-brand for Kraft. But during the Super Bowl, most people would rather just see some celebrities.

And Shapiro selected for his Celeb designation:
• PepsiCo had me at their teaser. Put Peter Dinklage for Doritos Blaze up against Morgan Freeman for Mountain Dew. Then for the finished spot, add Busta Ryhmes and Missy Elliot to the “mix” and you’ve set a new bar for lip-sync amazingness. Oh, and get Nabil to direct. 
• If you want your celebrity spot to be funny, go with a funny celeb. Bill Hader’s funny. So Pringles went with him to introduce Stackers. The way he said “wow” was funny. The way he jammed the different flavors into his mouth was funny. Even the early-released outtakes were funny. And outtakes are rarely funny. But was it “Super Bowl” funny?
• Chris Pratt was wasted for Michelob Ultra and their fitness strategy was a bit on the nose. Danny DeVito was perfectly cast as an M&M. I sure enjoyed watching him float in chocolate. John Malkovich was a hard act to follow for Squarespace this year. Turns out Keanu Reeves is no John Malkovich. And I’ll give credit to the Amazon spot featuring a parade of celebs as replacements for Alexa (and Jeff Bezos as a not very believable Jeff Bezos) for poking fun at itself. 

In the big picture, Schapiro shared, “So, once again, there was a range of work on the Super Bowl that fell into the usual categories. And once again, there was something for everyone to laugh at, be moved by, tweet about...and for those of us in the industry, be jealous of.”

Brett Craig 
Brett Craig, EVP, executive creative director, Deutsch, looked favorably upon the Michelob Ultra commercials with Chris Pratt which “finally right-sized the tone for that brand. They were fun, had Super Bowl scale and they no longer featured the brand trying to be Gatorade. The Tide work also stood out. It’s an idea that’s been done many times before (parodying commercials) but they were everywhere—:30s, :6s and even faux NFL bumpers. By sheer bombardment, they certainly owned the day in terms of recall.”

Missing the mark, said Craig was T-Mobile which “settled on stating some feel-good platitudes over images of cute babies and then putting up their logo. They have been a disruptive upstart in the category, but they failed to tell 100 million people anything relevant to their service. Thank you, T-Mobile, for telling me that you think it’s good to be an individual and love whomever I want. But really, can you just make my cell bill lower, please?”

Overall, related Craig, “Thankfully, this year seemed somewhat apolitical compared to last year’s sermonizing, post-election Super Bowl ads.”

Unlike mono’s Maki, Craig isn’t perturbed by online exposure for Super Bowl spots prior to the Big Game. “VW’s Mini-Darth started the early release trend and has become the default approach. Unless the idea is somehow dependent on an element of surprise or needs the real-time context of the game like 2012’s Chrysler “Halftime in America,” then given you’re spending $6 million to $10 million in production and media, why not release it earlier?”

Jeremy Schwartz 
Work for Tide, Amazon and Kia got a thumbs-up from Jeremy Schwartz, chief creative officer at Truth Collective. He observed, “Tide circumvented all the pre-game release hype and stole the Super Bowl ad game with its hacks of other well-done past Super Bowl ads with the help of Stranger Things’ David Harbour. From inserting itself into the ethos of car and beer commercials, to the more overt parodies of Old Spice and Mr Clean ads, Tide’s simple no-stain message and repetition of ‘it’s a Tide ad’ stood out as the freshest take on the ad landscape on Sunday night. Viewers perhaps even had to pause for a moment to determine if the spot they were watching was a Tide ad or one of the other Super Bowl advertisers’ spots since they created a brand presence in each quarter of the game.

“Among the spots with a more traditional Super Bowl buy approach, Amazon’s ‘Alexa Lost her Voice’ ad was not just star-studded for celebrity sake, but integrated those unique personalities into the narrative in an integral and amusing fashion. The spots eased into the concept (even allowing us a glimpse of Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, himself) with some broader comedy delivered by Gordon Ramsey and Cardi B. But Rebel Wilson and Sir Anthony Hopkins drive the spot home by dialing-up heaps of humorous discomfort.”

Schwartz noted that Kia’s “Feel Something Again” for The Stinger “was not only well-executed, it featured one of the best rock anthems in history and starred its iconic singer Steven Tyler, but it felt like it came from pure insight around the car itself. Remember: these expensive spots are actually supposed to sell product. And I feel Kia and its agency were able to use a 69 year-old to sell a car billed as ‘Fueled by Youth’ with a fresh take on a time travel concept. I want to feel how that car drives because the spot reinforced the excitement of driving. I’d guess some Millennials could be equally as curious as they seek their next car purchase. Critically, I felt the inclusion of ex-Formula One and Indy driver Emerson Fittipaldi was unnecessary. Perhaps they bought some authenticity for older motorsports fans, but it broke the flow of Tyler’s story to a small degree—that is, until The Mill’s badass effects kick into gear as Tyler slams the Kia Stinger into reverse. 

As for what work missed the mark, Schwartz assessed, “I was preparing myself to write on comedic misses (Pringles failed to push the creative to a more memorable place and misused killer talent in Bill Hader with the “Wow” spot), but The Big Misstep of the night—and it’s no surprise—was RAM’s ‘Built to Serve.’ This is another instance in which I wish I could watch the past several months unfold leading to production of this spot. Did the pressure of RAM’s past Super Bowl successes weaving Paul Harvey’s “God made a farmer” into their effort simply put them on this collision course by continuing the tradition of that spot? Was it a clever planner or writer who picked up on Super Bowl LII coinciding with the exact 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘The Drum Major Instinct’ sermon that compelled them to lean in? Was the creative team inclusive and considerate of Dr. King’s intended audience? Once the idea survived the undoubtedly multiple rounds of Super Bowl creative reviews, was there testing to understand how appropriating the words of one of the most celebrated social justice leaders—to sell pickup trucks—might be received? And did they even care that they only lifted a small piece of the sermon best serving their agenda—disregarding the full context of MLK Jr.’s rallying cry against the “verbal persuasion” of the ad industry and being swayed into materialistic over-indulgences? 

“I do hope the folks behind this spot knew it was a gamble—one they surely lost in real-time on Twitter during the game. If they weren’t aware, that means they are disconnected from the broader implications of the spot’s ineptitude. No doubt, the social climate in the U.S. is fraught with growing pains as we forge progress. Every once in a while, advertising can be a mirror in which society looks to create an aspirational image of ourselves. What’s reflected there is an ugly truth about privilege and exploitation. Simply put, you should not reduce the importance of a leader like MLK Jr. to sell a few trucks. 

In terms of trends and themes, Schwartz related, “Surprisingly enough, the advertising environment for the football spectacle was more Golden Globes than The Grammys in terms of steering clear from the obvious objectification of women (Carls Jr. and GoDaddy knew better than to bring their brands to the game this year). Some spots touched on themes of equality, inclusivity, and celebrating all our differences (Coke “Wonder of Us”), but no one went all-in on the social movements around #BlackLivesMatter, #TimesUp or #MeToo. Instead, several brands appealed to our social consciousness with safer—though worthy—cause marketing plays that covered access to water in where there’s need, childhood cancer treatment, human mobility, disaster relief, and support of first responders. Toyota and Budweiser especially struck emotional chords and, likely, more brand affinity between trips to the chip bowl and fridge for a fresh beverage.”

Regarding prior online exposure for Big Game ads, Schwartz doesn’t feel that practice dilutes the impact of the creative itself. “I do feel brands have incredible opportunities to build their story and their audience for it prior to (and after) the game now more than ever. If I were to place myself in the shoes of a CMO shaping the strategy for my beloved consumer brand and had the board approval to spend millions on a Super Bowl splash, I’d likely start the effort with teasers to build anticipation for my full-length Super Bowl spot. That teaser would do its best to drive my online and social media goals so I can share some impressive brand engagement charts at my next board meeting, where I’d ask to do an Oscars-specific effort. But hey, lots of ways to move the pieces around this brand match. The NFL and Tide kept their creative close to the vest and scored big-time on Sunday night. Hopefully, the clients and agencies alike are more focused on their brands’ business objectives to make the decision to pre-release or not, and not cater to the very small group of industry insiders clamoring to form their POVs on the work well ahead of kickoff.”

Jennie Moore
Jennie Moore, creative director at WONGDOODY, is not a fan of tipping one’s hand online. “I absolutely think prior exposure dilutes the impact of Super Bowl spots. In fact, pre-releasing these spots has always seemed counter-productive to me.  I think teasing the spots is a great idea- it’s all part of the build-up. But if they’ve already seen the commercials beforehand, what’s going to keep people from getting up during breaks, and missing the spots they’ve seen plus others they haven’t?” 

Moore thought the biggest brand winner at this year’s Super Bowl was Tide. “The first Tide spot was so funny and well done and based on a simple truth—everyone’s clothes usually are super clean in Super Bowl ads. Then I was surprised every single time they came back with a play on a popular commercial. Old Spice guy, Clydesdales, Mr. Clean—I lost track. By the time the fake pharmaceutical ad came on with old lady playing tennis, I actually clapped ‘cause they got me again! 

“Febreze’s “The Only Man Whose Bleep Don’t Stink” also had me cheering. Great use of the mockumentary style, and although it could run anytime, I loved how they tied the product into the context of a Super Bowl party at the end.

“Toyota’s “One Team” spot that started like a set up to a bad joke (A rabbi, a priest, an imam and a monk go to a football game...) was charming and heartwarming. The dialogue and little moments between the characters—“Nice shoes. Yeah, those are cool.”—made it even better. 

“Finally, the Visit Australia spot was a surprise favorite, too, and not just because Thor was wearing a white button down and sipping Shiraz. (But yeah, partly because of that.) Mainly, I truly wanted to see the movie they were promoting. Danny McBride and Chris Hemsworth? Sign me up! It was a clever turn and great use of celebrity. And you’ve got to love a country (or brand) who’s willing to poke fun at themselves.”  

As for spots that missed the mark, Moore asked, “Why was Keanu Reeves standing on a speeding motorcycle and pontificating? Maybe there’s a Squarespace website that could explain it all, but I don’t care enough to check it out. And the ad with the babies. Oh, man they were adorable! And it talked about diversity and equality and inclusion and I was so ready to wipe away my mom-tears and cheer on Pampers or Gerber or any company who was remotely relevant. T-Mobile was definitely not that company. 

“And the words of Martin Luther King Jr, spoken 50 years ago today, were poignant and moving and beautiful. But every time they cut to a Ram logo, I felt myself cringe. Those are sacred words written and delivered to inspire greatness, not sell heavy duty pickup trucks—I don’t care what the payload is.” 

Overall, Moore was grateful for the comedic imprint on this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads. “The past few years have been so heavy on grand, anthemic spots, it was nice to feel the pendulum swinging back to having fun again. I love a powerful, beautifully written brand anthem if it’s relevant and sincere. But I appreciate a stretch limo version of a horse and robots who tell you your face is dumb even more.”

Nathan Frank
For Nathan Frank, creative director, OOB, the Tide rolled in to the Super Bowl with great effect. “Like many others, I loved the Tide commercial and I’m still trying to understand the implications of this idea. This wasn’t going to be a very good ad at the outset; an ad which featured David Harbour, a celebrity at the distracting level of celebrity where you know you should know who they are, but you don’t and your brain isn’t totally engaged until you work it out. An ad that began by pillorying Super Bowl ad conventions that maybe don’t really exist anymore. But then it turned and it lay claim to all ads that would ever follow. Everything in life that features anybody with a clean shirt has become an ad for Tide. You can feel that the world has changed since this ad aired, but it’s too soon to know how.”

Assessing which spots missed the mark, Frank noted, “Unlike last year, it seems to be an unwritten rule of the Super Bowl this year that advertisers, performers, and athletes should stay far as possible from politics and, if possible, reality in general. Audiences have enough politics in their lives and are looking for a little bit of light nonsense in their Super Bowl ads. T-Mobile and Dodge Ram might have come out on the wrong side of that rule.”

And relative to prior online display of the commercials, Frank observed, “I think people in the advertising industry sometimes overestimate the impact of releasing ads prior to the Super Bowl. We seek ads out early, but I can’t imagine the majority of Super Bowl viewers making an effort to do so. Anything that expands the life of these ads is a good thing.”


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