As the only national platform where people have as much interest in the ads as in the broadcast event itself, the Super Bowl is a phenomenon that permeates our culture. It’s an unofficial American holiday and uniquely, it’s a collective event where brands become part of the same shared experience.
Our proprietary McCann Truth Central's Truth about Fans study informs us that major sporting events have the unique ability to connect people to each other, more than major religious holidays or global crises such as climate change. During these divided times, more than ever before, we need to acknowledge the importance people attribute to this type of shared experience and to champion the moments that unite us.
Given the potential power of major sports events generally, it’s important to understand that the Super Bowl is nonetheless unique. Although sports in general may facilitate those deeper connections, with the Super Bowl, the advertising is just as powerful a component as the sport itself. In essence, this makes the Super Bowl one of the largest potential advertising impact moments of the year. Given this, it’s important to understand what works, what doesn’t, and most importantly, why it works as it does this year. Historically, the Super Bowl advertising success stories are those that tap into the current cultural landscape in powerful ways. And this year was no different.
Some brands accomplished uniting us more successfully than others. Ultimately, the commercials that resonated the most were those that recognized current cultural dynamics, and created content that allowed their brand to be a part of the broader conversation. Given the currently tumultuous climate, it appears that the two key areas that resonated best in terms of forging connections are comedic commercials and what we would call empathetic ones.
Best-in-Class Comedic Spots
Comedy, a hallmark of entertainment, is traditionally a mainstay within every set of Super Bowl commercials, and this year was no exception. Brands used humor in innovative yet culturally-aware ways, helping to relieve game day jitters by sharing a laugh with friends and family and reminding us that we’re not so different after all.
Here are three examples:
- Tide: The series of commercials merged message and media throughout, mocking the tropes of Super Bowls past, from stereotypical car to beer ads, and from mattresses to medication warnings. The spots left people across the country to wonder if every ad is in fact a Tide ad (and notably, forget all about the Tide Pod challenge).
- Alexa: Amazon’s Alexa ad, which included Gordon Ramsay, Cardi B, Rebel Wilson, Anthony Hopkins and the company’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, imagined a world where Alexa loses her voice and requires snarky celebrities to serve as alternates. The witty, minute-long spot left everyone thankful to have Alexa in their lives instead of the celebrities themselves.
- N.F.L.: The N.F.L. had its own job to do reminding its fans about the collective experience of the game, political opinions aside. The league’s own ad featured the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. reenacting moves inspired by the movie “Dirty Dancing,” getting viewers to remember the softer side of the sport and the players behind it.
Best-in-Class Empathetic Spots
What we see repeatedly in our research is that the more unpredictable and uncertain the world becomes, the more people look inwards to their communities and their homes. Ultimately, people are craving humanity in an increasingly inhumane world. This is precisely the need that some brands championed this Super Bowl by evoking empathy and playing on people’s best instinct to love one another and the causes close to our hearts. And rightfully so! People see brands as allies in helping them create meaningful change in the world.
Here are three examples:
- Budweiser: Budweiser stepped away from the iconic Clydesdales found in their recent Super Bowl commercials to make way for a tried and true traditional piece that just feels right. Featuring the brand stopping production of their beer to instead bottle water for areas devastated by natural disasters, this ad is a prime example of how a brand can leverage its footprint to better the nation and world.
- Hyundai: In this deeply emotional spot, Hyundai owners are pulled aside as they walk through security at the Super Bowl and are greeted with real-life cancer patients. The game-goers are informed that when they purchased their Hyundai, they were also helping to fund pediatric cancer research, highlighting the brand’s CSR efforts in a very human way.
- Verizon: “Answering the Call” reminded us of the good in humanity by showing situations of first responders rescuing people, overlayed with actual thank you calls to those responders from the people who were saved. Andrew McKechnie, Verizon’s chief creative officer, told the New York Times about the first responders in the spot: “They answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it...In a culture and a climate where it’s hard to find any kind of positive news out there at the moment, it felt like something we wanted to really lean into and take on a very different message.”
Why Some Fell Flat
People are looking to brands to stand for something more meaningful, and deliver it across everything that they do. Unfortunately, for some brands, the way they entered into the dialogue felt inauthentic. Others opted not to take a stand, but at this, the Oscars of our industry, their ads left audiences craving more.
The Super Bowl remains one of the best—and, in fact only—ways a brand can reach most of the nation with a single commercial. This year a number of brands made the most of this opportunity to respond to some of the challenges our country is facing and help us all to find some common ground.
Irrespective of their approach, whether comedic or empathetic, one thing is clear: those brands that relentlessly execute against their meaningful role stand a better chance of succeeding in as much as people are looking to brands generally to stand for something larger, and to deliver this core value across everything that they do.
But also, in evaluating Super Bowl commercials, we cannot forget that we are in a creative industry and no matter what is going on in the world, creativity is still of the utmost importance. As Rob Reilly, our Global Creative Chairman, says: “You’ve spent $5 or $10 million. You need to be the MOST creative. The rules go out the window. What is the most impactful thing you can do comedy-wise, empathy-wise, impact-wise? Brands stretch themselves because the price tag is so high. It still is the crown jewel of our business.”