With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominating the Kansas City Chiefs, there wasn’t much suspense over the outcome of Super Bowl LV. So in a game not close enough to hold viewer interest throughout, the question became would the commercials at least in part pick up the slack?
In some respects, the ads were operating from a disadvantage from the get-go in that this had to be among the most challenging years ever for the creative community relative to the Big Game in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic woes, and a climate of political divisiveness. Big parties and social gatherings tied to the game were generally few and far between--at least among those who take the warnings of epidemiologists and frontline healthcare professionals seriously. So viewers were apart socially and often divided ideologically, making for a tough audience to connect with.
Would humor be the right way to go? Might comedy not play as effectively in the wake of all that so many have endured--and are enduring--for the past year-plus?
At the same time, a laugh or diversion would be welcomed. Do we need serious social messaging that only serves as a reminder of what we’ve endured? Is there a positive message that can resonate while acknowledging tough times? It’s a tight creative tightrope to walk so SHOOT sought out some experts to assess how the industry navigated that Super Sunday path.
Yet even amid these concerns, the Super Bowl represents a golden opportunity in an otherwise media-fragmented landscape. The event is guaranteed to deliver a mega-audience and thus a shared experience for viewers--perhaps engendering the feeling that at least for a few hours we can all figuratively come together.
Continuing its annual tradition, SHOOT sounded out creative artisans whose agencies did not have any commercials on this year’s Super Bowl so as to get unvarnished, apolitical takes on the advertising.
Here’s a sampling of the feedback we received:
Stephen Clements, chief creative officer of YML, went for simplicity when it came to picking his favorite ads on this year’s Super Bowl telecast. “I really enjoyed the Oatly spot,” he said. “Not only was it quirky, but the very low production just added to the commercial standing out among all the overdone high production ads, which just felt like they were ‘trying too hard’ this year. I thought the Reddit ad stood out: simple message delivered simply. I am a firm believer that if you have something worthwhile to say, you don’t need a huge budget to say it--although, of course, it helps.”
Missing the mark big time for Clements was a perennial Super Bowl brewing mainstay. He explained, “In a time when people are in crisis over $600 stimulus checks, any company spending a bajillion dollars on an ad seems grossly out of touch. A very good example was Budweiser and their moral superiority about not having a Super Bowl ad for the first time in 35 years was then totally undermined by all the ads for Bud Light, Bud Light Hard Seltzer, Anheuser Busch InBev (owns Bud) and Michelob (sister brand to Bud). Yup, super-meaningful gesture, thanks Bud.”
In terms of a Super Bowl ad trend, Clements said he “was struck by how few of the ads had face masks or really acknowledged the pandemic at all, especially when it wasn’t too long ago when all the ads were ‘we’re in this together’ sort of thing. I think this points at the inevitable COVID fatigue and how there is likely going to be an explosion of pent up demand for normal things when the vaccine comes out.”
Assessing the big picture Super Bowl ad performance this time around, Clements related, “The overall crop is hard to grade in the context of other years because this isn’t a normal year. I was a little surprised that some of the biggest stalwarts of Super Bowl advertising (yup, you again, Bud) missed the mark by such a margin, which I suspect was due to them not really knowing how to tread the line of COVID without talking about COVID.
Jonathan Cude, chief creative officer at McKinney, observed, “Overall the game this year was really disappointing compared to some of the recent Super Bowls that have come down to the closing moments. It’s hard to separate the game (a bit) from the ads in the sense that if the game’s not close the ads in the 4th quarter feel out of context from an energy standpoint. The big winners? Anyone who had an ad before about the middle of the third quarter. There were some good ads after that but, wow, think about the amount of money that was invested for what had to be a massive drop off in audience, especially in the 4th quarter. At $5 million per 30 seconds, Jeep spent $20 million on the media alone for their two-minute Springsteen epic--and how much for Bruce!?
“My favorite ad of the game, somewhat surprisingly, was the Bud Light Seltzer ad about making lemonade out of lemons. Felt like it truly captured the zeitgeist of the country – but in a funny way, that we could all relate to.
“Special shout out goes to the writing in the M&Ms spot for the ‘Mansplaining’ and ‘Karen’ jokes. Spot on.
“I give credit to Jeep for getting Springsteen to do their spot--they landed the great white whale that the ad industry has been trying to reel in for decades. That may be the marketing story of the year. That said, GM won the automotive category. Well crafted, funny, with a timely product message delivered in a way America is open to hearing it.
“Though maybe it’s a little unfair, since they own the game (CBS/Paramount), and had multiple spots to work with (which is its own challenge) but the Paramount streaming spots--especially “Summit” with Patrick Stewart was really fun.
“Apparently, there was also a stealthy five-second Reddit ad, but I have to admit I only read about it afterward and missed it during the game, but it definitely hit on Twitter. Winner for the most efficient use of media spend.”
Honorable mentions for Cude included Doritos 3D, State Farm, Toyota Team USA, Turbo Tax, Rocket Mortgage, A-B and Amazon.
Meanwhile, missing the mark on Super Sunday, according to Cude, were:
“Listening to Ashton Kutcher sing may have been the low point of the game. I know some people loved it, but I found it cringe-worthy. Maybe this is a theme...the Oatly Milk spot with the singing CEO in a field of oats (I presume?) I am not sure that was the best use of his talents as the CEO.
“There were a bunch of others that were fine. But not really special--by Super Bowl standards. Felt like a lot of expensive explosions and CBS and movie promos which I don’t really count as ‘Super Bowl’ spots.
“There was no single ad this year that dominated the game like ‘Tide Ad’ did a few years ago.”
In the big picture, Cude said of Super Bowl advertising this year, “Here’s the theme--there’s a global pandemic on. Anyone who got an ad done for the Super Bowl, and made it look like it was done in a ‘normal year,’ which I would argue was most of the ads, my hat is off to you and to your client partners. Truly. I know it was not easy.“
And COVID considerations impacted his approach to grading Big Game 2021. “Overall,” he said, “I would give this Super Bowl a B-/C, but if I’m grading on the COVID curve I’d give it a B.
Erica Fite, co-founder/co-chief creative officer of Fancy, cited the ads that were among her favorites on Super Sunday:
Amazon, “Alexa’s Body” “I’ve always found it uncomfortably sexist that Alexa has a conventionally female name and that people feel fine ordering her around all the time without ever saying please or thank you. Putting Alexa in the burly body of Michael B. Jordan turned that on its head. The fact that imagining the Alexa servant as a man was so funny and ridiculous made it all the more obvious to me that, although everyone seems to be fine bossing a woman around, something changes when we think of a man going out of the way to serve our purposes. And it was one of the only truly entertaining ads. If you can be entertaining in advertising, the Super Bowl is the place to do it.
Reddit. “They had the daring to believe that with a little static, quick flash of a sort of branded “emergency emergency broadcast system” screen, and a long written page, we would all rewind, freeze the screen and read it, making a 5 second spot the one that people spent the most time with. In those 5 seconds, Reddit created a whole new way of approaching the TV ad and the Super Bowl. Relevant, simple, bold, genius.”
As for which ads missed the mark, Fite assessed:
Shift4Shop, “Join Us” “I can think of a lot of things that would be really exciting about space travel, zero gravity, the amazing views of earth from space, seeing the wonders of outer space. But I doubt that wearing a claustrophobic space suit ranks in the top 5, or 10 reasons. In fact I could see that as a possible deterrent. so I don’t understand why the whole spot is spent romanticizing the details of the suit like a car interior. “
“The CURE Auto insurance joke on sexual harassment was incredibly culture-blind. The horrible reality of sexual harassment at work is still much too serious of an issue to be funny yet. I’ve never heard of CURE before but, for their own sake, I hope they spend some time to get in touch with the world, and women in particular.”
Identifying themes and trends, Fite shared, “I was struck by the fact that it seemed like everyone had anticipated the pandemic would be over by the time their ads ran on Super Bowl Sunday in February. The horrible days of COVID-19 2020 were treated like a thing of the bygone past. This was most obvious in the shocking fact that masks were missing from the work. I appreciate the positivity but, overall, the work felt out of touch with the moment we are living in.
“An apparent effort to help heal and unite the nation was evident with the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, soulfully calling out for people to meet in the middle in the Jeep “Re-United States of America”, Bass Pro Shops telling us that we need nature (and fish killing) to heal us and bring us together, Indeed giving all kinds of people a vehicle to find a satisfying job and Robinhood uniting all people as born investors.
“And there was a lot of mash-up mania with all sorts of seemingly unrelated characters getting together. This included networks/streaming services like Paramount, Disney, CBS and Verizon as well as all the old Bud Light ad characters from the past convening to help a tipped over beer delivery truck.”
Overall Fite felt this year’s lineup of Big Game ads was “for the most part underwhelming, but still impressive considering everyone needed to work around the realities that they were shot during a pandemic and shown at an event that was filled with cut out people. Amazing that it felt almost normal. I’m really looking forward to the days of packed stadiums and carte blanche for Super Bowl ad production and all production.”
Bill Lee, creative director at MONO, had several spots among his favorites. “I hate to say it, but sometimes a great idea is better than an original one. Amazon’s Alexa spot is a case in point. It’s a device we’ve seen so many times (person goes into dreamland imagining how the product will change their life, wackiness ensues). But holy crap if I didn’t laugh out loud. And I sure haven’t done that in a while. It’s so, so well crafted on all fronts. From script, to cinematography, to performances. Especially the husband. His pitch perfect performance makes the whole thing work. Nice job, team.”
Also standing out for Lee was the GM spot with Will Ferrell. “So often, celebrities in ads just feel so forced and corny. But the trio of Ferrel, Awkwafina, and Keenan Thompson had great chemistry and felt right for the spot. And beyond the star power, it was refreshing to see an American car company admitting where they’re failing (electric vehicles), and do it in a way that is self-deprecating and funny, but still leaves you feeling hopeful.”
Lee also cited “the rare cinemagraphic originality of the Toyota spot,” adding that “the vision of the set design is something normally seen in movies, not TV commercials. It brought the touching story to life in a way that could only be done for that story.”
Another draw for Lee was the Paramount+ work in which different celebs were featured, including an animated Beavis and Butthead, who offered such pearls as “Hehehe. She said crack.”
On the flip side, Lee didn’t specifically point out ads that came up short, only observing, “It’s pretty tough to call out specific ads for missing the mark because I know how hard it can be to do amazing work, much less on such a grand stage. But I find that too often, celebs in Super Bowl spots tend to feel forced. Sometimes I actually feel embarrassed for them. We have such high expectations when we see superstars (that’s why they’re superstars), that it’s quite the letdown when we see them acting out an ad copywriters script.”
Relative to ad themes or trends in this year’s Super Bowl, Lee asked, “Is it just me or was there a bigger than normal nostalgia play this year? Wayne & Garth, Sesame Street, Edward Scissorhands, Bud Light Legends, and more.”
Lee’s bottom line: “Overall I’d give this crop a C+/B-.There were only a few that made me jealous. Certainly some well done and entertaining spots, but not a lot of big ideas.”
Stephen Niedzwiecki, chief creative officer, YARD NYC, was partial to Jeep, Toyota, Anheuser-Busch and GM fare on Super Sunday. He explained, “Jeep’s ‘The Middle’ with Bruce Springsteen was poetic storytelling at its finest. Toyota told a beautifully crafted story about Paralympian Jessica Long in a different way, where most others would have done it documentary style. I also loved Anheuser Busch’s ‘Let’s Get a Beer’--it was much bigger than the product. It was about how much we need each other now. For funny, I liked GM’s ‘No way, Norway.’ Also Tide’s Jason Alexander spot was clever.
Missing the mark, according to Niedzwiecki: “Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade came off as tone deaf, and wasn’t funny. Doritos, Sketchers and Scott’s Miracle Grow also fell flat.”
From a theme/trend perspective, Niedzwiecki observed, “This year felt heavy on nostalgia. From Wayne’s World to Edward Scissorhands, we were reminded of our favorite films and characters from the past and it felt good without leaning too heavily into the past, which is important since we’re facing a very different future coming out of the pandemic.
As for evaluating the overall quality of this year’s Super Bowl ad offerings, Niedzwiecki related, “It felt like a mixed bag, which is normal. But it was impressive considering all of the production and budget constraints of 2020. Everyone really went for it.”
Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director/partner, TDA Boulder, assessed, “My favorite ad was the six-inch billboards on the backs of players helmets that allowed them to have a voice. The ad from the NFL letting us know they were prepared to spend 250 million dollars was the best and the worst at the same time. We all appreciate the major financial commitment but to not include Colin Kaepernick in the ad or recognize the sacrifice he made and conflict with the league seemed tone deaf. It would not have been hard to recognize the impact he has had in the NFL and culture.”
Relative to work that missed, Schoenberg noted, “I think Robinhood was awkward because any ad they do right now would be. Might have made sense to make an ad that addressed current events and assure people they are aware of how the public perceives them. There are over 30 class action lawsuits they are facing and maybe they should have tried to communicate where they are as a company. I don’t think Robinhood is an evil entity, but I am not one of the many people suing them. Bud Light makes amazing spots for the game but assuming that everyone recalls their ads from the past decades was uncomfortable. I was watching with three generations and all three were not sure who these Bud spokespeople of the past were. Our industry can get a bit carried away with how fleeting our work can be even during the Super Bowl and it was super hubris to celebrate ‘Bud Light Super Bowl legends.’”
Overall, this year’s Super Bowl ads earned a collective B+ grade from Schoenberg who added that in terms of trends, “Obviously we saw ads that told us we were or were not in a pandemic. They either played it up or pretended business as usual. The approach of when life gives you lemons for Bud Light Seltzer was great in that it recognized we are in Pandemic in a way that was entertaining vs a message of unity from a company that makes ________ (fill in the blank).”
Melissa Tresidder, creative director at Preston Kelly, shared, “I’ve never watched as much football as I did this year. I hung on to every game I could, craving one of the few ‘close to normal’ experiences we had. As the season wound down, talk of advertising being flat, Super Bowl slots not selling, big brands opting out, the general challenges of shooting in COVID times made me wonder what we would get from this year’s commercials. Funny? Heartfelt? ‘We’re here for you?’ Clients have been walking a tightrope of how to speak to consumers this year, rightfully so.
“I was happy to see nicely crafted storytelling. Humor. Nostalgia. Human connection. And celebrities with apparently nothing else to do.”
A few of Tresidder’s favorites were:
- Jeep: “I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch a spot that addresses the politics of the moment. But this felt poignant, hopeful and honest. The line 'the very soil we stand on is common ground' is pretty damn nice."
- Tide: The visual gag of Jason Alexander’s face was fantastic. The ending was a slight letdown, but The Greatest American Hero theme made up for it.”
- M&M’s: “Well-written (the double Karen!), acted and directed. The pace of the edit pulled it all together.”
- Toyota: “The decision to tell that story in such a striking visual way, almost like it was inspired by a stage production, made the spot for me. Incredibly crafted and emotional.”
- Indeed: “Simple idea, powerful song, perfect casting choices.”
- Bud Light Legends: “I had forgotten about a few of those guys (Dr. Galazkiewicz? Yes I am) so it was a nice reminder of how good some of the Bud Light campaigns have been. Also, I thought that this spot outshined most of the celebrity spots, which is funny since it was all about Bud Light celebrities. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Real Men of Genius singer.”
- GM: “Maybe it’s because I like all of the actors but it was the one of the few celeb-driven concepts that broke through. Will Ferrell is perfect for this role, especially when he stops the frenzy to comment on how adorable “Norway” is. That GM used humor to convey what’s a pretty big deal for them was ballsy, considering how easy it would have been to do pretty visuals with a stirring VO.
“Overall I thought it was a good showing. We got much needed humor and even downright goofiness, plus some honestly moving ads and a few fresh brands. Clients and agencies were able to trust each other in a who-knows-what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen year and produce work that made us feel, for one night, a little bit closer to normal.
Client Cadillac LYRIQ Agency Leo Burnett Detroit Robert Clifton Jr., Matt Cramp, Matt Turner, Jason LaFlore, creatives; Patrick O’Brien, executive producer; Chris Bridgland, Steve Lampert, Ted Gott, strategy; Dayna Elconin, cross channel strategy; Bob Samuel, consulting producer. Production O Positive David Shane, director; Ralph Laucella, Marc Grill, exec producers; Devon Clark, head of production; Jeff Cronenweth, DP; Maia Javan, production designer; Melissa Des Rosiers, costume designer. Editorial MackCut Gavin Cutler, editor; Megan Heard, assistant editor; Gina Pagano, exec producer. Color Company 3 Tim Masick, colorist. VFX/Post Framestore Larissa Berringer, exec producer; Jamie Hoskins Smith, sr. producer; Alex Roesch, production coordinator; Aron Hjartarson, executive creative director. Music Yessian Dan Zank, music arranger; Michael Yessian, head of production; Brian Yessian, chief creative officer; Gerard Smerek, exec producer/music mixer. Sound Design MackCut Sam Shaffer, sound designer. Audio Post MackCut Sam Shaffer, mixer.
Client Amazon Alexa Agency Lucky Generals Danny Brooke-Taylor, producer; George Allen, copywriter; Lizzie Moore, art director. Production Hungry Man Wayne McClammy, director; Mino Jarjoura, Caleb Dewart, Dan Duffy, exec producers; Marian Harkness, head of production; Rick Jarjoura, producer; Yuki Wakano, production supervisor; Emily Saeger, assistant production supervisor; Brian Stevens, 1st AD; Erv Gentry, 2nd AD; Christian Sprenger, DP. Editorial The Den Christjan Jordan, lead editor/co-founder; Mary Ellen Duggan, exec producer. VFX/Post The Mill Anastasia Von Rahl, exec producer; Alex Bader, head of production. Sound Beacon Street Studios Rommel Molina, engineer; Kate Vadnais, sr. mix producer.
Client Frito-Lay/Doritos Agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer; Laura Petrucelli, Andrew Bancroft, creative directors; Pedro Furtado, Sophie Lichtman, copywriters; Fabio Santoro, Mila Wizel, art directors; Rachael Stamps, content creative designer; Bonnie Wan, partner, head of brand strategy; Leila Gage, director of broadcast production; Sara Ward, executive producer; Molly Troy, sr. producer; Lauren Adams, producer. Production Superprime, Culver City, Calif. Damien Chazelle, director; Rodrigo Prieto, DP; Michelle Ross, managing director; Rebecca Skinner, managing director/exec producer; Charlotte Woodhead, exec producer; Matt Sanders, head of production; Carr Donald, line producer/unit production manager. Editorial Exile Edit Shane Reid, editor; Ersin Dogruer, Erin Offenhauser, assistant editors; Jennifer Locke, head of production; CL Kumpata, exec producer. Music “I Want To Break Free” by Queen. Justin Hurwitz, music editing. Sound Design Lime Studios, Santa Monica, Calif. Rohan Young, sound designer. Audio Post Lime Studios, Santa Monica Rohan Young, mixer; Jeremy Nichols, assistant mixer; Kayla Phungglan, producer; Susie Boyajan, exec producer. VFX/Finishing The Mill Anastasia Von Rahl, director of production; Heather Johann, sr. producer; Sean Tomek, production coordinator; John Leonti, creative director/shoot supervisor; Alexander Candlish, shoot supervisor/2D lead artist; Matt Bohnert, 3D lead artist; Franz Kohl, Jake Albers, Marisa Chin, Toby Brockhurst, Jacob Maymudes, Lenz Kohl, AVV Suresh,Rose Mathew, Prajeesh E,, 2D artists; Melanie Okamura, Christian Sanchez, Ziming Lui, Monique Espinoza, Ken Bishop, Daniel Stern, Hiroshi Tsubokawa, James Robinson, Stefan Kang, Omar Taher, Mike Kash, Elizabeth Hammer, Michael Lori, Krushna Ramrao Kulsange, Akshay Suresh Lanjewar, Asis Kumar Mahakhud, Somesh Tiwari, Sudhir Verma, Anish MohanFazal, Showber Shadik, Swathi Balasubramaniam, Upasana Choudhary , Verru Ramesh, Vinayak Balamurugan, Dongili Varaprasad, Manoj Ravi, Ashish Rawat, Lalit Salunke, Sukanta Chakraborty, Ujasgiri Goswami, Mahesh M S, 3D artists; Bill Lu, matte painting; Jacob Bergman, Matt Connolly, John Fieldling, Gustavo Gonzalez, Aton Lee, John Bloch, Michael Dinocco, animation; Justin Demetrician, motion graphics; Paul Yacono, colorist; Fawn Fletcher, exec producer, color; Denise Brown, color producer; Gemma Parr, Logan Highlen, color assist.
Client Anheuser-Busch/InBev, Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade Agency Wieden+Kennedy New York Karl Lieberman, chief creative officer; Gerard Caputo, group creative director; Stu Rubin, copywriter; Aimee Perrin, art director; Nick Setounski, head of integrated production; Jessica Griffeth, executive producer; Sam Kilbreth, sr. producer; Stephane Missier, global strategy director; Matt Hisamoto, sr. strategist; Connor Corr, digital strategist; Leah Greene, strategic planner. Production Arts & Sciences Mike Warzin, director; Marc Marrie, managing partner/exec producer; Mal Ward, partner/managing director; John Benson, exec producer, NY; Zoe Odlum, exec producer; Christa Skotland, exec producer/head of production; Casey Byron, producer (Arts & Sciences); Kristin Porter, producer; Ivy Jane, research and operations manager. Editorial Arcade Edit Jeff Ferruzzo, editor; Sila Soyer, exec producer/partner; Andrew Cravotta, sr. post producer; Sam Barden, assistant editor. VFX The Mill Clairellen Wallin, exec producer; Mandy Harris, sr. producer; Ajit Menon, 3D lead/shoot supervisor; Jimmy Bullard, 2D supervisor; Katharine Mulderry, production coordinator; Andrew Pellicer, Dhruv Shankar, Eric Sibley, James Cudahy, Kshitij Khanna, AVV Suresh, Mahesh Ravlia, Naga Praveen, Kumar Y, Rose Mathew, 2D team; Tyler Scheitlin, design; Fazal Khan, Indrajeet Kumar, Jadheer TP, Manoj Ravi, Rijo R, Showber Shadik, Swathi Balasubramaniam, Upasana Choudhary, Dongili Varaprsad, CG tracking; Alek Vacura, Krushna Ramrao Kuisange, Shahid Hussain, Kiran Prabhu, CG modeling; Daishi Takishima, CG rigging; Dave Barosin, Eban Byrne, Incheol Jeong, Pegah Naserifar, CG FX; Steve Parish, Arman Matin, Tom Bardwell, CG lighting. Telecine Company 3 Tom Poole, colorist; Alexandra Lubrano, color producer. Music Search Company Walker Sara Matarazzo, Stephanie Pigott, exec producers; Danielle Soury, music producer. Licensed Song: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (I Love You)” as sung by Jo Stafford & Gordon MacRae, original from 1950. Sound Design Trinitite Inc. Brian Emrich, sound designer. Audio Post Sonic Union Brian Goodheart, mixer; Pat Sullivan, head of production.
Client General Motors (GM) Agency McCann Detroit/McCann Worldgroup Brad Emmett, Chuck Meehan, chief creative officers; Michael Raso, creative director/art director; James Lemaitre, creative director/writer; Rob Legato, group creative director/art director; Michelle Musallam, associate creative director/art director; Nick Marine, associate creative director/copywriter; Grant Theron, GM global business lead and CEO, Commonwealth; Anne Feighan, chief strategy officer; Jeff Beverly, EVP, global director of content; Adam Van Dyke, sr. producer. Production Gifted Youth, LLC Jake Szymanski, director; Nick Jasenovec, director, 2nd unit; Josh Morse, exec producer; Casey Wooden, head of production; Stephan Mohammed, producer; Kramer Morgenthau, DP. Editorial Rock Paper Scissors Adam Pertofsky, Zoe Mougin, editors; Shade Shariatzaheh, exec producer; Janae Abraham, producer. VFX/Finishing Framestore Dan Roberts, exec producer; Katie Buckley, producer; Alex Thomas, creative director. Audio Mix & Sound Design Lime Rohan Young, sound designer and mixer; Jeremy Nichols, audio assistant; Susie Boyajan, exec producer. Color Company 3 Stefan Sonnenfeld, colorist; Blake Rice, color producer. Music JSM Joel Simon, CEO/CCO, co-composer; Rebecca Riter, co-composer; Jeff Fiorello, VP/exec producer; Norm Felker, Andrew Manning, Sharon Cha, producers.