Following a muted big game in 2021, Super Bowl LVI felt like a comeback for television's most-watched event. On-field play was lively, delivering a close matchup that saw the Los Angeles Rams eke out a last-minute victory against the Cincinnati Bengals on the Rams' home turf of SoFi Stadium. The Pepsi Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show drew Twitter raves after assembling a show-stopping lineup of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem, along with surprise guests 50 Cent and Anderson Paak. Some are dubbing the musical break the game's "best ever," a win for the soda marketer as its sponsorship rights are set to expire this year.
The advertising slate on Sunday tried to capture its own feeling of ebullience and Hollywood glamour, with few brands messing with proven strategies. Celebrities, nostalgic pop culture references and the promise of a plugged-in future dominated the night, embodied in a high volume of spots centered on nascent cryptocurrency platforms and electric vehicle offerings from automakers old and new. More socially conscious and solemn messages receded to just a couple of commercials after years of advertisers feeling pressure to address the country's inequities — but those outliers received a warm response, pointing to a possible missed opportunity for others. Overall, there was a sense of leaning into formula while going big on the execution front, a possible attempt to herald an anticipated return to normalcy after two years living during the pandemic.
For viewers excited about media innovation, however, the occasion might've disappointed. Only one ad, from cryptocurrency platform Coinbase, meaningfully broke with convention. The dialog-free "We're All Going to Make It," which was developed with Accenture Interactive and aired in the first quarter, showed a QR code bouncing around a black background in the style of a retro screensaver for a full minute. Scanning the code unlocked a promotional offer on the service, layering in a direct response element. The lo-fi approach — a potential attempt to recapture the magic of interruptive concepts like Reddit's winning ad from last year — landed newcomer Coinbase dead last in USA Today's Super Bowl ad meter and appeared to cause technical glitches for the platform. It was a curious debut for a category many consumers already carry high skepticism toward — not to mention a huge gamble to make around programming that commanded up to $7 million for 30 seconds of airtime from broadcaster NBC.
"With a reported site crash, this didn't seem to work for many and was a crass distraction from the game rather than an integration into it," said Mat Zucker, senior partner at brand transformation consultancy Prophet, over email. "An expensive gaffe for a new brand that still needs to explain its category."
Digital innovations draw divisive reactions
Regardless of whether its campaign will pay off in terms of sign-ups, Coinbase was easily the biggest discussion starter. The brand topped a social buzz analysis from Sprout Social, leading to 33,663 tweets and 267,126 engagements Sunday. The adage of "no publicity is bad publicity" could hold true, while the campaign is more measurable than a static piece of storytelling.
"This was the evening's most effective commercial — in terms of both cost-efficiency and measurable impact," wrote Lucas Piazza, head of marketing at QuickFrame by MNTN. "We all know the outrageous price tag of a Super Bowl commercial, so hats off to Coinbase for saving some money by making the video production incredibly low-cost."
Coinbase wasn't the only crypto company to generate a mixed response at an inflection point for a financial services niche seeking wider adoption. EToro, a brokerage firm that offers crypto trading, was second-to-last on the USA Today rankings and sparked little chatter with an ad that showed users gleefully flying around a city. Crypto.com, which recently took over naming rights to the former Staples Center in Los Angeles, served a heavy dose of the uncanny valley, with LeBron James having a sit-down chat with a digitally-generated version of his younger self on the cusp of stardom.
Tellingly, one of the better-received crypto spots looked a lot more like a traditional Super Bowl play. Exchange FTX ran a commercial featuring Larry David in a very Larry David role as a Luddite crank who ignores positive technological strides like the invention of the wheel in favor of preserving the status quo. The 60-second "Don't Miss Out" ultimately communicated a clear message to the wary masses, as well as a needed injection of self-effacing humor. Several creatives stated that FTX not releasing the full creative beforehand made for a welcome surprise.
"I know I'm not the only one that has a bit of trepidation when it comes to [cryptocurrency] and this spot was aimed at us," said Myra Nussbaum, president and chief creative officer of Havas Chicago, over email. "While other cryptos of the night gave us QR codes and bad CG, this spot encouraged us to be brave and believe that human ingenuity will always succeed."
Elsewhere, brands doled out takes on budding digital frontiers like the metaverse. Salesforce took potshots at the emergent channel in favor of tackling more tangible problems in the real world with Mathew McConaughey. Embattled Meta Platforms, formerly known as Facebook, depicted the emotional journey of a decommissioned animatronic animal band that finds a second life in virtual reality through the Meta Quest 2 hardware, one of the tech giant's big bets as its core apps encounter headwinds. Not everyone was won over on the idea.
"[Meta] was weird enough to make people even more confused than they already are about what the metaverse is all about," said Leeann Leahy, chief executive of VIA, over email.
Celebrity, nostalgia remain key tactics
No matter how successful or divisive, most of the night's ads relied on tried-and-true tactics around celebrities and nostalgia that have come to dominate not just Super Bowl spots but advertising in general, especially for brands looking for levity and connection with consumers. However, for many of the big game spots, star-studded familiarity was only effective when in line with a brand's identity.
Rocket Homes and Rocket Mortgage landed at the top of USA Today's Ad Meter for the second year in a row with "Dream House," a key example of bringing these tactics together. Starring Anna Kendrick, the ad used Barbie dolls and He-Man action figures to toy with the company's utility to those facing a competitive housing market. The combination of celebrity, humor and nostalgia helped the marketer win the night, said Paul Prato, executive creative director at agency PPK, in emailed comments.
"Barbie's dream house is the perfect setting to depict the cut-throat competitiveness involved with finding a home today," he said. "And an end Castle Grayskull cameo twist makes it all very big-game worthy."
While T-Mobile's charity single parody starring Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton and Taco Bell's off-the-wall clown adventure featuring a cover of Hole by Doja Cat both missed the mark, several ads successfully synchronized celebrity and nostalgia with their brand's value propositions. General Motors rebooted "Austin Powers" and BMW turned Arnold Schwarzenegger and Salma Hayek Pinault into gods to showcase EV commitments, while Amazon demoed the many features of Alexa with celebrity couple Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost.
A similar approach was critical for Uber Eats, which worked to solve its chief marketing challenge — educating consumers that the app doesn't just deliver food — in a forum not usually utilized to trumpet brand benefits. To do so, it tapped a handful of celebrities willing to be the punchline by eating inedible items (including a very special candle).
"Uber Eats used their spot (and teasers for it) to solve a real marketing problem they created for themselves: that the name for the delivery version of Uber is limiting, as opposed to DoorDash, for example. So until a time when they change the name — if they even have to now — we now know we can order anything," said Adam Chasnow, chief creative officer of Fortnight Collective, in emailed comments.
And in a night where most ads have been teased and revealed days before the game, one of the night's only surprises — Chevrolet's remake of the credit sequence of "The Sopranos" — also deftly walked the line, generating buzz during the game and conversations long after the game was over by using Meadow and AJ Soprano to promote its EV offering.
"When you borrow from a TV show as iconic as 'The Sopranos' you better be good… the story paid off the product. The Chevy for the next generation," said Jonathan Cude, chief creative officer at agency McKinney, in emailed comments.
Purpose-driven ads can win — if marketers dare to use them
After largely missing the mark on purpose-driven Super Bowl spots in 2020, marketers mostly avoided the tactic in 2021, during the first big game affected by the pandemic, amid political divisions that had resulted in an attempted coup just weeks prior. This year, even as marketers look forward to a return to normalcy, most opted not to spotlight social impact or speak to the current moment in their ads. Still, notable exceptions suggests that many could have moved the needle, had they tried.
For the second year in a row, Hellmann's used its big game spot to combat food waste, as part of parent company Unilever's commitment to sustainability. After tapping comedian Amy Schumer as a "fairy godmayo" last year, the brand this time around called on former NFL linebacker Jerod Mayo to tackle food wasters — literally. The slapstick spot, which also featured comedian Pete Davidson, balanced Hellmann's purpose-driven needs and viewers' desire for light-hearted Super Bowl ads.
"Hellmann's which struck a nice balance between purpose and entertainment. So often purpose advertising is heavy, virtuous, or has no connection to the product. This did a nice job of making a purpose message accessible," said VIA's Leahy.
However, as with other purpose-driven efforts, the brand cannot just roll out a flashy Super Bowl ad and hope for the best.
"For this ad to really pay off for Hellman's, they’ll need to continue to support this mission throughout the year, otherwise they risk losing authenticity with their audience — a key driver of brand value," said QuickFrame by MNTN's Piazza.
One of the night's biggest winners is working to support purpose with the very product it was showcasing. Google used its 60-second ad to introduce its Pixel 6 smartphone's Real Tone technology, which allows for more accurate portrayals of dark skin tones. In the moving spot, testimonials about the limits of camera technology and years of terribly shot photos give way to a montage of portraits of people with a wide range of skin tones. While the ad also features Lizzo and an unreleased song by the musician, it revolves around the experience of a variety of everyday people.
"What stands out for me is the ability of viewers to see themselves in this spot," said AJ Rowe, head of content and culture at WPP's Hogarth Worldwide.
Several industry experts called out how the ad combined celebrity, value proposition and a larger brand purpose around diversity, equity and inclusion — a theme largely absent from ads during the biggest night for a league that continues to face controversy over racism, but a priority for the ad industry even since a renewed push to fight racism began in the summer of 2020.
"As a Black man in this industry, I have watched models, actors, and even myself be misrepresented by conventional media standards," Rowe said. "It’s time for brands to stand up and do the right thing. If we work to change what’s 'normal' today, we will move into a world where equality is more achievable tomorrow. In the words of Lizzo, 'If you love me, you love all of me.'"