Editor's Note: This analysis is part of our series on Super Bowl marketing. For a look at the statistics from the big game that matter to marketers, check out our By the numbers piece.
Super Bowl LV ads brought a smattering of tried-and-true tactics and anodyne pleas for unity, reinforcing that most brands still struggle to message around mounting crises. The night wasn't wholly absent of surprises, but a scarcity of breakout moments was amplified by tortuous on-field play that saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trounce the Kansas City Chiefs 31 to 9.
In the end, the evening lacked the needed bite and emotional resonance to rise to the level of a marketing spectacle, creating an overall feeling of stark disconnect on advertising's biggest stage.
"The 2020 we all lived through did not happen in adland. Brands and agencies went back to the old normal: humor, heartstrings, celebrities and spectacle," Jay Suhr, chief creative officer at T3, a Material Company, said over email. "I could feel the country's conflict of emotions in the strained concepts and the writing."
Reading the tea leaves around Super Bowl LV, advertising experts had predicted a game where brands would play it safe with a focus on humor and pollyanna platitudes rather than overt references to uglier societal troubles. Sunday night indeed carried few surprises with a slate of ads that doled out a heap of jokes and celebrity cameos, though even those familiar tactics had some of their edge sanded off as sensitivities remained high.
"Humor still dominated the creative strategy, but it was a gentler humor than in the past which often was over-the-top or somewhat snide," said Jim Nail, principal analyst at Forrester, over email.
At the same time, a handful of ploys at addressing the modern political divide — including Jeep's epic two-minute plea to find "The Middle" with Bruce Springsteen — drew decidedly mixed responses, showing marketers have not figured out how to message to a fractured nation. Speaking to a hankering for something new, the rare breaks with convention, such as Reddit's "hacking" of the game amid the GameStop stock-trading saga or Oatly's deliberately low-budget 30-second spot, sparked the most chatter online.
"Should they address social issues? Should they stay in their lane? Should they go out on a limb with something risky and memorable? In the end, most marketers played it safe, avoiding risk… and reward," Margot Bloomstein, principal of Appropriate, said in emailed comments.
Among the winners, traditional picks and a pean to the 'little guy'
Some pitches for laughs did land, with Rocket Mortgage's pair of 60-second commercials starring Tracy Morgan commanding both of the top spots on USA Today's closely watched Ad Meter. The warm reception speaks to the fact that many football fans were seeking a form of reprieve that absurdity could deliver. Perhaps tellingly, the ads carry a streak of dark humor, with frequent displays of cartoonish violence like a man getting bitten on the face by a snake or one having a killer hornet's nest fall on his head.
And while Rocket Mortgage steered clear of directly touching on problems like COVID-19, the creative emphasizes that only being "pretty sure" about a situation can turn out way worse than being certain — a motif that hit closer to home during a period defined by uncertainty. Bud Light adopted a similar approach with an ad promoting its hard seltzer that centered on making the most of the "lemons" of 2020, tumult depicted as a barrage of literal lemons raining from the sky.
Amazon scored accolades for an ad that skirted closer to risqué territory than most. In "Alexa's Body" — ranked No. 3 on the Ad Meter — a female product engineer at Amazon imagines a more perfect vessel for the company's signature voice assistant in the form of actor Michael B. Jordan. Her passionate requests of the newly chiseled Alexa make her real-life romantic partner increasingly jealous, while highlighting the tech's myriad functions, from reading audio books to putting together shopping lists.
"The Amazon Alexa spot was a well-written, classic Super Bowl spot with a big-name celebrity," Vann Graves, executive director of the VCU Brandcenter, said over email. "It also represented diversity. It didn't matter the race or gender identity of the viewer, it was the focus on the awkwardness of Alexa's 'new body' that made the spot funny."
But those front-runners, for all their strengths, weren't particularly unusual for big game advertising. In terms of bucking convention, Reddit aired maybe the most noteworthy output of the night.
Rather than running a typical 30-second commercial, the platform pushed a five-second static ad in select markets that nodded to the GameStop controversy that saw retail stock traders on one of its forums, WallStreetBets, go to war with hedge funds, sparking real-world market chaos. The ad starts off as what appears to be an automotive commercial before glitching out to show Reddit's message about how "Powerful things happen when people rally around something they really care about."
"While they didn't move us the way we would expect a Super Bowl spot to, this was a powerful use of five seconds, and the ripple effect online was strong," Barbara Yolles, chief executive of Ludwig+, said over email. "While a lot of big brands chose to bow out completely to rally for a cause, Reddit chose to invite themselves to the party and bring their platform into the spotlight."
In its form and content, Reddit's ad ultimately reinforced how the site can serve as a megaphone for "the little guy," according to Brynna Aylward, creative director at Gut.
"Just as the average person was able to make a real impact on the stock market, this tiny buy with the lowest production value made a real impact in the Super Bowl," Aylward said over email.
It's a positioning backed up by the GameStop saga, a story still fresh in viewers' minds and one that dragged down another ad Sunday. Robinhood, a stock-trading app that played a large role in the GameStop controversy, ran its first-ever Super Bowl commercial, but bypassed mentioning its current image problems. Instead, the company pushed a message of democratizing stock trading — a mission many users feel Robinhood betrayed, showing how quickly consumer sentiment is changing in volatile times.
"More than ever, we're craving transparency, authenticity and cultural awareness from brands," Amanda Abrams, group creative director of Team One, said over email. "Granted this spot had to have been done well before the recent GameStop frenzy, the unfortunate timing zapped it of its sincerity."
The best and worst both generated controversy
After winning last year's Super Bowl by tapping into nostalgia with its nostalgic "Groundhog Day" ad, Jeep returned to the big game with another big splash: a two-minute short film featuring Bruce Springsteen. "The Middle" calls for American unity amid political polarization, alluding to the divisive presidential election and the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol, as Springsteen says: "The middle has been a hard place to get to recently, between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear." Confronting the American political moment head-on with a message of hope was an effective strategy for some viewers.
"The concept of 'the ReUnited States of America' really spoke to the sentiment of what I think the country is longing for. It was a great example of a brand realizing that the world around them is more important than their own agenda, but that there is a great opportunity to be part of that conversation in a meaningful way," said Claude Zdanow, CEO of Stadiumred Group, over email.
The combination of solemn copy, connection to the brand and the power of a spokesperson like Springsteen — making his first appearance in an ad — illustrated how a brand can deliver a powerful message in a Super Bowl spot, according to Fernando Pellizzaro, creative director at David Miami.
"It's like everything is in the right place. That's the kind of an ad and message we expect from big brands," Pellizzaro added over email.
However, with its appeal to political reconciliation as the country still deals with shockwaves from the Jan. 6 attacks, the Jeep ad did not resonate with everyone.
"It rang super hollow despite having the Boss and being well executed. It was cringe inducing after the year we've had," said Irena Milev, creative director at B-Reel, over email.
The ad also relies on religious (specifically Christian) symbolism, calling on Americans to journey to a chapel in Lebanon, Kansas, in a way that could alienate viewers and undermine its message of unity, noted David Gorodetski, COO and executive creative director at Sage Communications over email.
"There was a certain American-ness to it that I doubt will translate outside the middle half of the country," Gorodetski added.
"The buzz machine is in full spin and Oatly is playing into the hate with its own t-shirt."
Chief creative officer, T3
While Oatly avoided politics, the oat milk brand's Super Bowl debut — which features its CEO singing an offbeat song about its product — also proved controversial. The spot is dead last in USA Today's Ad Meter, and the company is leaning into distaste for the spot, offering free t-shirts that read "I Totally Hated that Oatly Commercial" as a make-good for those who spent 30 seconds watching the ad. But being intentionally annoying to generate buzz is a risky strategy, especially for an upstart brand.
"They took an odd approach that caused an alienation of their core consumer. Additionally they alienated themselves from anyone who was not already a consumer of Oatly or didn't know who they were to begin with," said Stadiumred's Zdanow.
With the cost and prominence of Super Bowl ads, high risks can also lead to high rewards. Oatly's ad was likely the winner of the night's "so bad it's probably good category," according to T3's Suhr.
"The buzz machine is in full spin and Oatly is playing into the hate with its own t-shirt. For me, it was 'Midsommar' strange. I saw more ego than wink in a CEO singing his own tune," Suhr said.
The offbeat approach of using its own CEO in such an unflattering way could also help Oatly break out from a pack of brands that tried to one-up each other with a quantity-over-quality approach to celebrity appearances, said Dan Kelleher, chief creative officer at Deutsch New York, over email.
"My kids and I were still singing it 15 minutes after it aired. Love it or hate it, Oatly broke through," Kelleher said.