With the Kansas City Chiefs coming from behind in a fourth quarter rally to defeat the San Francisco 49ers, the Super Bowl held viewer interest throughout--which is a good thing for advertisers who paid up to $5.6 million for a :30 time slot. At least they could count on audience attention from kickoff all the way to the Chiefs’ triumphant hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy.
This year’s crop of Big Game commercials for the most part served as a diversion from a politically charged climate. We are in the throes of a presidential impeachment trial. And Super Bowl Sunday came right before the Iowa caucuses today and the State of the Union address by President Trump on Tuesday. Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg even ran ads during the Super Bowl.
Thankfully, though, the political backdrop took a backseat at least for a few hours as 100 million plus viewers received an ad dose of primarily comedy, entertainment, silliness, and other escapist antidotes for trying times.
Most brands steered clear of politics. And in that spirit, SHOOT once again steered clear of those who had a special interest or a particular axe to grind in assessing Big Game ad fare. 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 on the Big Game spots:
Toygar Bazarkaya, global chief creative officer of brand experience agency Optimist, had several spots that impressed him. “Each of my favorite ads I selected for a different reason--in general, there are only a few ways to win at the Super Bowl, and all of them tie back to making consumers feel something. A reaction from the viewer is the ultimate goal, and that’s difficult to achieve during the game because expectations are so high.
“My first favorite was the Google ‘Loretta’ spot. Creating a heartfelt ad in such a short span of time is no small feat, especially within the context of the Super Bowl which is so humor-dominant. To get viewers invested in a story within that time frame is incredible. The ad also didn’t feature any celebrities, which is a rarity these days. Additionally, Google as a utility was at the center of the ad’s story, meaning they showcased exactly how their services positively impact their consumers.
“I was also impressed by the Hyundai ‘Smaht Pahk’ spot. It was classic comedy executed brilliantly. While the spot itself was understated, all of the memorable dialogue was around the product service. There was also authenticity to it, as the celebrities featured were from Boston. The ad exhibited great craftsmanship.
“The NFL spot at the beginning of the game also stuck out, not because of the amount of celebrities or its epic shots, but because of its seamless transition. They managed to create the end of the spot in the live broadcast, which is difficult to do. It set the tone for the commercials to come.”
In terms of trends, Bazarkaya observed, “There were a lot of ads targeted towards women, which was huge. Once something has arrived at the Super Bowl, its importance is amplified. The amount of money and attention that goes into these spots from both a client and viewer perspective is meaningful, so the spotlight on women was great to see. Also, while celebrity features are table stakes at this point, this year’s average was better than in years past.”
Bazarkaya concluded, “Overall, I liked this year’s ads. They were entertaining. Back in the day, the water cooler was busier because most of the commercials were seen for the first time during the game. Now, it’s common for brands to pre-release their spots.
“As a plus, this year’s game was good. Fourth quarter commercials are typically high-risk, high-reward, because if the game is a blowout viewers stop paying attention. Because the game was so close, audiences stayed engaged, so that was a big payoff for the brands that bought fourth quarter inventory.”
Sariah Dorbin, executive creative director at Quigley-Simpson, Los Angeles, tabbed several ads among her favorites on this year’s Super Bowl. “Loved the Rocket Mortgage ad starring the ‘real’ Jason Momoa; such a fun way to play with an icon and it took place in a house, so extra credit for some product relevance! Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” was a smaht spaht; I’m a sucker for a single-minded story that actually says something about the product, and I LOVE that they let a female comedian play. Another fave was Jeep’s “Groundhog Day”—this was a pop culture reference with an actual reason for being; all these years later, and on Groundhog Day no less, it makes sense to pick this story back up and let the poor guy have some fun. But...Google for the win! I mean, who knew search could rise to such a higher purpose? They did!
As for spots that missed the mark, Dorbin assessed, “Ugh, so many Super Bowl spots are just stuffed to the gills with...stuff, and those are the ones I like the least. But a true nadir this year was Trump’s spot, which had the gall to use an African-American woman to promote a racist regime, and, in the same spot, to take credit for reuniting families while actively separating children from their parents as a matter of policy.
Relative to trends or themes evident in this latest crop of Super Sunday spots, Dorbin related, “I see a few trends, some of which are so predictable year after year that we could more accurately call them clichés (bloated storylines, a sea of celebrities, a reach for humor that too often doesn’t quite land). New this year, though, are a couple of notable things. One is real diversity. This year we saw more representation for people of color (other than players), LGBTQ couples and singles, and women who don’t wear short shorts. Hooray. Secondly, many advertisers (Microsoft, Secret, Kia and WeatherTech being the best examples) are using their airtime for good, choosing to say a whole lot less about their products and a whole lot more about human (and animal) issues.
In the big picture, Dorbin concluded, “It was a good year! We got real humor, incredibly moving stories, smart strategy, amazing craft, and record inclusivity. And even some product relevance across a lot of the work. Good job, ad people!”
“Rocket Mortgage was clearly the best ad of the Super Bowl,” affirmed Nathan Frank, head of brand development at Interesting Development. “This is not a subjective opinion. Desperately funny without Jason Momoa or Rocket Mortgage actually saying anything funny. Disturbing visuals tell the joke in its entirety. This dedication to a single joke told visually takes an incredible amount of self-discipline to achieve, and is an almost impossible task in the context of a Super Bowl ad where everybody wants the comedy to come at you all the time and from all angles. The proper amount of self-discipline allows something as simple as a slide guitar to become comedy.”
Missing the mark for Frank was the Squarespace spot starring Winona Ryder. “Winona may have been born in Winona, Minnesota, but she is not from Winona, Minnesota,” said Frank. “She is a famed resident of Petaluma, California. A small town very near to Sebastopol, California where I grew up. The legacy of Winona Ryder should not be displaced. Especially painful at a moment when the San Francisco 49ers were to meet their own demise.”
Frank also identified a trend he could do without. “Do we really have to revisit the ‘90s so often? Was it such a good time that we have to relive it over and over again? Can’t we just move forward? Let’s let the descendants of this time period live in peace and not dredge up their bodies every Super Bowl to make them sing and dance and then go away again.”
Overall, though, Frank shared, “I am happy to see a return to comedy and, based on its success this year, I believe we will continue to trend that way in years to come.”
“The landscape was (and honestly, usually always is) littered with humor--so I really appreciated spots that took an uplifting or heartfelt angle,” shared Betsy Jemas, executive creative director at Organic. “Google and New York Life were two that particularly stood out to me for championing their narratives with great storytelling instead of hiding behind flashy, expensive talent or cheap laughs.”
As for what work missed in her estimation, Jemas related, “Can we please cool it with Mr Peanut now? The Planters spot clearly spent a lot of time and effort on earned media weeks before the game and all I was left with was wondering why I’ve never heard anything about Mrs. Peanut.”
In the bigger picture, Jemas observed, “I noticed a huge trend of brand mashups this year. It felt like a lot of ads thought they’d level-up to big league status with a little recognizable assistance. This idea isn’t new, but there was something really tiring about it in 2020 and why something silly and simple like Hyundai’s “Cah Pahk” felt fresh (although that ad would have been SO much more relevant last year with New England in the game, no?).”
Regarding the letter grade she would give this year’s Super Bowl commercials, Jemas went outside the curve. “I give it an M for meh,” she quipped.
Rob Kottkamp, chief creative officer, Partners + Napier, was partial to a couple Super Bowl spots. “I loved the Hulu spot because it was such a smart use of celebrity and a really powerful conceptual play. Brady is up for free agency this year and as a six-time Super Bowl champion—there was a ton of buzz around if he was going to move teams or retire. The opening shot of this Super Bowl spot that he posted on his Instagram feed earlier in the week sent the sports world into a tailspin of speculation. This was a great example of harnessing something that viewers are already talking about, and ultimately using it to drive conversation about a brand.
I also loved Doritos’ Cool Ranch Just Got Cooler. With Billy Ray Cyrus, Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott, it was just classic Super Bowl goodness.
Regarding which ads fell short in his estimation, Kottkamp shared, “Olay’s spot was a miss. They’re trying to do what Dove has done so well, in their own way, and it just came across as tone deaf. They shot themselves in the foot with that one. P&G was also a mess. There is just too much going on and it overcomplicated itself in a tough way. Brands that normally put out great work can fall flat just with the sheer amount of eyeballs and pressures surrounding this event.”
Kottkamp observed an ongoing, increasing trend this year, sharing, “More and more, these spots are designed to drive everyone to social. They’re concepted to make memes and drive conversations far beyond the game.”
In terms of his overall assessment of the Super Bow ad crop, Kottkamp simply stated, “Better than most years!”
Gavin Lester, partner/chief creative officer at Zambezi, said, “Out of all the ads last night, Jeep’s ‘Groundhog Day’ won it for me. It was just so good on so many levels. The idea itself was simple and thoughtfully executed from actually releasing it on Groundhog Day to getting the elusive and amazing Bill Murray--great job.
“I thought Snickers also did a good job. Our global society is going through some turbulent times--from cultural and political divide to our obsession with technology and social media--and it was refreshing to see a brand be honest and transparent with the world in a snarky and delightfully cynical way. BBDO New York did a nice job blending social commentary and entertainment, while giving a nostalgic nod to the infamous Coca-Cola ad.
“Another memorable spot was Google’s “Loretta.” I think in today’s landscape, brands need to be able to connect with their audience on an emotional level, and this touching spot did a good job of doing just that.
“Last but not least - the return of Cheetos and MC Hammer. There was nothing groundbreaking about this ad, but I found myself laughing.”
On the other side of the ledger, Lester shared, “One ad in particular that I felt missed the mark was Hyundai Genesis’ ‘Old Luxury’ with Chrissy Teigen and John Legend. It was disappointing to see another brand in this category challenge the norm of luxury in the same way Audi did it years ago.”
In terms of themes or trends, Lester related, “While we did see some brands like Olay and Microsoft celebrate women (which is always wonderful to see), there wasn’t one particular theme that stood out. The only notable trend was the oversaturation of celebrity talent throughout the night.”
Lester gave the Super Bowl ad lineup a grade of C-plus. “I felt this year’s ads were somewhat old fashioned, and not the forward-thinking ads I had hoped for. Sure, the work is entertaining and created for a broad Super Bowl audience, but no one is doing anything that is truly disruptive or challenging standard conventions. Everything just felt too familiar.”
“The Jeep spot was the clear standout in a field that seemed a little weak this year,” said Chuck McBride, founder and chief creative officer of Cutwater. “Doritos and Hyundai came in as close seconds. The latter was especially clever with the Boston accent being the driving humor of the spot that somehow everyone appreciated in the room I was sitting in. The Google spot really played well against the humor grain. The more emotional music and the compelling story of someone who just wants to remember their loved one in the face of losing their memories was very powerful.
At the other end of the spectrum, McBride cited as work that missed: “The Trump ad fell so flat that most people I was watching with started booing the TV. Even Bloomberg’s ad was flat. Quibi and Hulu also lacked impact and seemed to have missed the mark when surrounded by more clever and entertaining content. Audi, which usually shows up strong, seemed to get lost this year as other car brands took angles that were more crowd pleasing and funny by nature.
Typically, continued McBride, “The use of celebrities, as usual, seemed to dominate the game time spots. I don’t know if this constitutes a trend, but it certainly is a common ploy for this venue.”
On a scale of 1 to 10, McBride said, “I’d have to give this year a 7. Mainly because the beer brands weren’t having as much fun as beer brands should during the Super Bowl.”
Several spots were cited by Mike McKay, chief creative officer of Eleven, as among his favorites. “The cowboy faceoff for Doritos felt like a Super Bowl classic. A simple visual idea like this always plays well at a noisy Super Bowl party - where spots with dialogue often get drowned out. The decision to feature Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott cut across every age demographic. The editing showed restraint and wasn’t trying too hard, and the horse dancing at the end was a nice, unexpected touch. It was very well-crafted.
“The Jeep Groundhog Day spot was fun. It was quite clever to see it come to life during a Super Bowl that actually fell on Groundhog Day. Unlike many Super Bowl spots, the brand was front and center, and Bill Murray was very likable and funny, as usual. Also, every scene that was written to be funny, actually was. And the line, ‘No day is the same in a Jeep Gladiator’ was the perfect payoff at the end.
“Yes, I’ll be alone on this one, but I admired the Avocados from Mexico spot for its sheer ability to maintain that level of uncompromised insanity throughout the agency and client Super Bowl approval process. Not only is this type of humor tough to write, it’s even tougher to sell-in and execute well. Sometimes, we all need a little crazy to put a smile on our faces. Brave stuff.”
Ads missing the mark for McKay included, “The McDonald’s Famous Orders commercial really lacked imagination. It felt like run-of-the-mill product spot you’d see on a Tuesday. If you’re going to spend five million dollars to run a commercial, you need to try much harder, I think. Why wouldn’t you show the individuals being paired with their meal of choice? Is McDonald’s trying to save money on production and talent costs? The Super Bowl isn’t the place to cut corners.
“The Heinz spot was a real head-scratcher. It was an execution without a reason. Why a four scene split-screen? Who were those people in each screen? Why are they tentatively walking towards the counters and tables? Why the spooky music and what are they afraid of? Strange commercial.”
In terms of a theme or trend, McKay observed that “the commercials felt a bit broader and far less political. Perhaps brands are more reluctant to take a stand on current issues? If so, maybe they’re realizing doing so can be too polarizing. Alienating half your audience isn’t a great business decision, so perhaps marketers are avoiding picking sides with a current issue.”
For his bottom-line assessment of the Big Game commercials, McKay said, “Overall, I’d give them a “B.” The spots this year felt a bit safer than year’s past. Nothing big, bold and iconic.”
For Will McGinness, partner/chief creative officer at Venables Bell & Partners, several spots caught his fancy. “I really liked the Amazon Alexa ad. I think that was one of the best all-around spots of the night. I also have to say that although it pulled from a familiar past playbook, the Google ad stopped the room in its tracks where I watched the game. That was impressive to witness. The Bud Light ad with Post Malone was pretty great and I loved the stupidity of the Snickers ad wanting to feed the world a Snickers. I also loved the head-fake of Tom Brady retiring in the Hulu ad. The thought of millions of Pats fans having heart palpitations at that moment was pretty awesome.”
As for what ads missed the mark, McGinness assessed, “There were probably too many to mention, but aside from the comically cringeworthy Secret ad, I thought Coke dropped the ball with that horrendous ad with Scorsese and Jonah Hill. The fact that they had those two teed up for a spot and couldn’t come up with something better is a crime.”
McGinness found a prevalent theme/trend to this year’s Super Bowl ad crop not to his liking. “I feel like there were way too many ‘celebrity as idea’ spots this year. There are always a ton of famous people in the Super Bowl and that’s fine but this year there just seemed to be way too many ads that just threw people in without any discernible idea. It just felt lazy. Sing-a-longs and space seemed to be well represented as well.”
His conclusion relative to the ad menu: “Some good, some bad but nothing that far out of the ordinary. I’d give it a B.”
Katie Riddle, creative director at MONO, Minneapolis, provided insider-outsider perspectives on the Super Bowl ad lineup. She explained her approach, sharing “I often find it fascinating what we as an industry gravitate toward compared to the people. In fact, last year we took an agency poll and our top pick was one of America’s most hated. Sure, we’re familiar with the craft, but more often we are not the audience. So to make sure I wasn’t watching in an advertising vacuum I invited a person of the people, my mom, to watch the game with me. And here’s what I, as an insider, and my mom, as an outsider, thought of the ads in this years Big Game.”
Running down their favorite ads, Riddle assessed, “Google ads never get old. They are simple, emotional and made both my mom and me tear up. In other words, it evoked a visceral, emotional response from us that no other ad did all night. Pringles stood out for two reasons. They used animation and they were incredibly self-aware. Honestly, I can’t believe they sold this spot which might be another reason I loved it. Jeep made us laugh. It was the best use of nostalgia in my opinion and the strategy worked seamlessly with the creative. Well done. Other top favorites included, Rocket Mortgage’s “Skinny Momoa” and Snickers’ “Big Hole.”
On the flip side, Riddle related, “I don’t want to call anyone out and add to the noise of negativity that the most scrutinized ads in the world often get. It’s hard to get something made and placed onto this stage, so I want to say congrats. Everyone should feel proud of this accomplishment no matter where they fall on some list. With that said, I do wish more brands would have taken bigger swings. Everything felt safe which to me translates to forgettable. In my mom’s words they were simply, “Meh”.
Themes or trends cited by Riddle were “approachable humor, nostalgia and odd use of celebrity dominated the field.”
Riddle gave this year’s crop of Big Game ads an overall grade of a C-plus. Her mom was slightly more generous with a B-minus.
“This Sunday’s football game sadly felt like any other,” concluded Riddle. “Nothing felt truly special. I never thought to myself, ‘I wish I would have made that’ or ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did that.’ Which is a real shame.”
Hart Rusen, chief creative officer, SOCIALDEVIANT, provided his pre-game and in-game winners in analyzing Super Sunday.
Pre-game winner: Doritos “Sam Elliott Monologue”--”Even though it wasn’t on the game, this was one of my favorite pieces from the 2020 crop. It’s not an ad. It’s an amazing 57 seconds of film. Classic Sam Elliott mashed up with some not-so-classic Lil Nas X. The chills start at ‘I’ve been in the Valley.’”
In-game winners: Reese’s Take 5 “Rock”--”Textbook Super Bowl ad. Visual comedy with a hefty serving of vignettes piled one on top of another capped off with a guy with his head up his butt. That’s how you make a Super Bowl ad.”
Mountain Dew “As Good as the Original/The Shining Redux--”Perfectly executed homage to the original. Bryan Cranston absolutely nails the Jack Nicholson role. The big gag is brilliantly timed and sticks the landing with a wry, understated, ‘I am thirsty.’ The button with twin Cranstons in the iconic blue dresses is a great ending to a great spot.”
Jeep “Groundhog Day”--”You can’t go wrong with Bill Murray, and this spot certainly doesn’t go wrong. Another great twist on a classic. Loved the beat with Mr. Murray playing Whac-A-Mole with his groundhog friend. Also really liked that this spot was rooted in a sound, well delivered upon strategy.”
Overall winner: Squarespace “Welcome to Winona”--”The spot is a nice, charming Minnesotan/Fargo-ish exchange that leads to big URL: WelcomeToWinona.com. That journey is well worth the trip down the rabbit hole. The website is the perfect combination of simplicity and beauty, and convinced me I need to get on it and make a new website.”
Missed the mark: Heinz “Find the Goodness (Four at Once)”--”It’s hard enough to get people to pay attention to one ad. Giving viewers four stories to follow simultaneously is too much work.”
As for the big-picture bottom line, Rusen assessed, “Overall, I thought this was a strong class of Super Bowl ads. Lots of big laughs and brands taking the story beyond the :30.”