You know how people say “[Blank] is my Super Bowl?” Well, the Super Bowl really is my Super Bowl. It’s one of the highlights of my year, and I eagerly await its arrival like a kid anticipates Christmas morning. The ads aren’t a sideshow for me. They’re THE show. But Super Bowl LIII left me wanting more from the usual suspects like beer and snack food brands, from the emerging tech titans with their big budgets and potential to “change the world,” and from the little guys betting an entire year’s worth of marketing budget on the eyeballs and PR value. This year’s Super Bowl ads left me feeling we’ve lost our collective sense of humor, we’ve lost our edge, and now we’re scared that machines will take over the world.
Emotion has been a staple of Super Bowl advertising creative since we started paying attention to this stuff. Yet this year, very few commercials touched me emotionally (props to Google, Microsoft and Budweiser’s ever-present Clydesdales, amber waves of grain and some windmills). Only a handful seem like they’ll stay in my memory past game day (thank you, Amazon, for Harrison Ford and a cute Boston Terrier.) And not a single one made me laugh out loud. Are today’s creatives unable to connect with audiences without being offensive or even disgusting? (Wee, Mint Mobile’s “Chunky Milk” spot for reference.) All this makes me ask: are we, as a society, just not that funny anymore? Or are we so sensitive now that brands are afraid to lean too hard into anything for fear they might offend potential customers – or – gasp – their Twitter followers?
During a time when many brands lean hard into causes and issues they feel strongly about in an effort to attract customers who share their brand’s values (remember Nike’s controversial ad featuring Colin Kapernick late in 2018?), I expected to see brands using Super Bowl’s huge audience and PR value to put their beliefs on display in a big way. It surprised me that only a few brands took this opportunity to align themselves with social issues or causes. When it did happen, the execution and impact were mixed. Google and Microsoft’s spots used great storytelling to showcase what they care about and how technology truly makes the world a one of its legendary Clydesdale ads. Kia Motors, however, woke up this morning to mixed reactions to its spot, “The Unknowns” which was at once highly produced and seemingly lashing out against the use of celebrity endorsers. Kia’s slick, cinematic production highlighting the launch of their Telluride SUV left me scratching my head. While I am aware that the ad is part of a larger digital campaign that involves a scholarship fund for the “unknowns” and other activations, if there was a connection somewhere between that and this automobile that I was supposed to get, I didn’t.
The spot that got my attention was The Washington Post’s. It piqued others’ interest as well; “Democracy Dies in Darkness” was also the most controversial and divisive among the denizens of my social media feeds. Hitting the airwaves just before the game’s 2-minute warning the ad snuck into a slot where many viewers had already tuned out of this snore of a football game. Still, backlash against the brand came fast and hard on social media, with many of the Twitterati claiming the ad landed a direct hit on President Trump, his supporters and the conservative media, and others applauded WaPo’s willingness to take the lead in a hard conversation about the importance of journalism for preserving democracy. A third group of nay-sayers emerged, showing disdain for the Washington Post’s expenditure of more than $5M during a time when journalists are let go from news outlets on about a daily basis. Finally, for many commenters, the ad further fueled an ongoing debate about “fake news” v. “real journalism,” highlighting just how polarizing perceptions of media brands have been during the past few years.
The best brands in the world are those that target their brands and align their brand’s core values at an archetypal ideal customer – a singular customer who is most highly predictive of a brand’s success. That often requires bold actions with the power to alienate customers who don’t fit those criteria. That’s hard for brands. WaPo was the only brand among this crop of Super Bowl advertisers to take a bold risk in using an ad to attract its ideal customers. After seeing the ad, people who share beliefs and values in common with the Washington Post will likely find themselves more bonded to the brand and might even pull out their credit cards to subscribe. But at the same time, The Post alienated a large group of people who don’t share the paper’s point of view and values. That’s probably nothing new for WaPo. I haven’t seen the data, but I suspect that the folks who demonstrated they were offended by WaPo’s message last night were probably already anti-WaPo to start with, and the commercial and WaPo’s message just dogpiled on negative sentiment that was already there.
In the last two years, we’ve seen many brands take a vocal stand for the things they believe in and against the things they don’t. We’ve seen it executed well, as when Nike took its stand with Colin Kaepernick in late 2018. We’ve seen it fall flat as with Pepsi’s tone deaf ad featuring Kendall Jenner back in 2017. When brands take a stand, people talk. Super Bowl LIII advertising revealed a new trend of brands backing away from controversy out of fear of offending their audiences. As a result, instead of edgy, gut-busting humor, heart-felt sentiment and gritty storytelling revealing the true human condition, we got watered down, un-funny, unremarkable commercials with little strategic brand value. Advertising at the Super Bowl has the potential to take a brand – and what it stands for – to the next level. Smart brands know this and exploit this value, by using their ads as a magnet to attract to them the kinds of customers who stand for the same things as the companies and people behind the brands themselves.
One thing is for sure: brands win when they’re clear on their beliefs and values and when they align them strongly with those of the customers they most want to attract. When brands are wishy washy, or when they bring an everyday ad to a special occasion like the Super Bowl is when we get the yawners we saw last Sunday. My hope is that the pendulum will swing back in the direction of ads that make audiences sit up and pay attention because they see themselves in those brands. Legendary ads like Apple’s notorious “1984” ad, Budweiser’s “Whassup?” and even Old Spice’s 2010 absurdist “What Your Man Can Smell Like” ads were very clear about who they were for and what their brands stood for, and that’s why we’re still talking about them today.