Our COVID reality may have led many of us to expect this year's Super Bowl advertising to mimic the nostalgic overtones of 2021. However, in many ways, it took a much-needed detour to reflect optimism, energy and the type of sassiness that jolts consumers into believing that tomorrow will be a better day. The future is today -- as reflected by the emerging product categories that made their debut on game night, from crypto to online gaming to electric cars.
It was only in 1984 that the granddaddy of all ads made its spectacular and, might I say, meta debut during Super Bowl XVIII, propelling the Macintosh computer to iconic status. Public reaction for that Big Brother narrative represented a watershed moment that catapulted Apple as a brand but also forever changed the world of Super Bowl advertising.
It's 2022 -- welcome to the best short film festival you will see this side of Telluride.
At a price tag of $7 million per spot, we witnessed the craft of storytelling reach new heights with adrenalin-powered adventures featuring unlikely action hero Eugene Levy in his blazing yellow 2023 Nissan Z sports getaway car to the space odyssey turned into a "let's save earth" trek that only Matthew McConaughey could pull off, energized by his Salesforce trail mix, of course.
In many ways, this year's slate of mini-films over indexed on all things super--superstars (Zendaya, Anna Kendrick, Serena Williams, Salma Hayek, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the list goes on), superhighways with super gods (BMW), super babies (GM and E-trade), super robots (Kia), super beats among wild beasts (Cheetos/Doritos), super couples (Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost for Amazon Alexa) and then the super simple (Coinbase's QR :60 seconds musical bounce act).
Our industry is besotted with lists and meters -- from USA Today's Ad Meter to iSpot.tv's Ace Metrix. These provide useful aggregate consumer reactions to the stories and seven million reasons that a CMO can use to justify the spend to their often-skeptical CFO (except maybe for the Coinbase team minus the tech headache of fixing their app).
As purveyors of authentic stories that touch the heart and fill the coffers, we are always on a quest to unlock that magic formula for the greatest ad show on earth. This year that formula relied heavily on celebrities and humor and less so on good ole brand messaging to drive recall. Remind me again what product Larry David told us not to buy?
So, what learnings can we apply for the rest of our campaigns in 2022 as we emulate some of the Super Bowl stardust, minus the ambitious budgets and reliance on A-listers?
Simple vs Sensational
There is no brand that epitomized simplicity on game night better than Coinbase. Inspired by the bouncing DVD logo meme, the brand's 60-second ad showed a colorful dancing QR code -- and that was it. Consumers had ample time to scan the code that would bring them to Coinbase's promotional website, offering a limited time promotion of $15 worth of free Bitcoin to new sign ups, along with a $3 million giveaway. That clever stunt broke their app due to a massive influx of traffic, and it is a great example of a simple and uncluttered execution to drive consumer action. Interactive TV can work -- just make sure you're ready for all that attention and have a way to sort out the real buyers from the overly zealous.
Let's compare that to the more sensational revisionist history approach that another crypto brand took. With a spotlight on Larry David (the brand was FTX, by the way), well known for his contrarian antics on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the spot was a melodramatic backwards time machine, where the master of skepticism rejects everything from the wheel to Edison's light bulb to the Founding Fathers' push for American independence. The hilarious ad created the perfect story backdrop to showcase the Larry David brand -- and maybe, just maybe, enough viewers will remember what FTX is. On this highly crypto-driven stage, consumers needed to differentiate and recall this execution versus another with a high-voltage celebrity -- none other than LeBron James who was pushing competitor, crypto.com. Time will tell which brand outperforms.
Utility vs Multi-Brand Storytelling
The Coinbase execution provided consumers a utility -- a way to quickly learn about Bitcoin. The QR code's landing page got a whopping 20 million hits within just one minute of the ad airing, according to a company spokesperson.
Another financial services brand that also experimented with QR codes but in a more organic, less direct way was the Rocket Mortgage ad featuring Anna Kendrick and Barbie. This was a great example of multiple brands being woven together to tell the story of one lead brand. The world of Barbie comes to life with master storyteller Kendrick, combined with some dramatic twists, colorful characters and a couple of hidden surprises within the ad. One of the kids in the spot is sporting a QR-code design T-shirt, which if scanned, would take viewers to StockX, the resale platform that shares the same founder as Rocket Mortgage. These surprise "goodies" inside the story is what Rocket Mortgage is using as a tactic to drive further engagement and playbacks.
The other multi-brand effort came from Frito Lay's Flamin' Hot Cheetos and Flamin' Hot Cool Ranch Doritos, in a jungle-themed story of ravenous creatures, including a sloth, deer, bear, fox and a red-plumed little songbird voiced by Megan Thee Stallion. Along with Salt-N-Pepa's dance hit "Push It," the ad features Charlie Puth, a recognized Grammy-nominated beatboxing entertainer. The execution brings story, music and humor together to showcase the brand's burst of flavor and the zeal to steal!
Celebrity Buzz vs Product as Hero
There is no doubt that there was an overreliance on celebrity star power during this year's Super Bowl. One ad that effectively weaved in the brand story without the celebrity presence overpowering the message was Alexa's Mind Reader execution featuring real-life couple Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost. According to YouTube, it was the No. 1 most-watched spot on Sunday. It tapped into a key benefit that Alexa provides around simplifying your life, but then takes it to a comical extreme -- what if Alexa can actually read your spouse's mind? A witty execution that cleverly used the Johansson-Jost duo to communicate Alexa's value in a memorable way. The brand story was the hero, with the celebrities as the supporting act and not the other way around.
When it comes to smart devices, Cue Health's Super Bowl ad relied on positioning the product as hero, while still sprinkling in audio star power by featuring the voice of actress Gal Gadot. Cue Health's 30-second commercial placed second among all Super Bowl advertisers in terms of how well it drove people to search and engage with the brand online. It performed 22.5 times better than the median Super Bowl ad, according to consumer search data from Edo.
By focusing on the brand and personifying it with some tongue-in-cheek references to the "competitor" smart home devices, viewers "warmed up to Cue" and its important role in protecting families from COVID-19 through its rapid tests. Surprisingly, it was the only COVID-related product advertised during this year's Super Bowl.
Speaking Up vs Representation
While there were many examples of diversity in action across the slate of Sunday's ads, only one explicitly used the national stage to drive home an important social impact message about the experiences of people of color. Google boldly addressed inequities head-on in its commercial, which showcased the Real Tone capability of its Pixel 6 (image at top). By shining a light on individuals and families with diverse skin tones and some of the photographic challenges of capturing the nuances of differences in tone, it effectively raises awareness on a topic many would not have been aware of.
Featuring an original song from Lizzo, the ad was directed by Joshua Kissi, a Ghanaian-American photographer who is one of 17 other photographers that Google worked with to test the camera for higher quality and representative images.
This is what makes this story very powerful. Every aspect of the brand, from product development to communication to the diversity profile of its chosen agency, told a consistent story of taking action on representation -- not words, but quantifiable steps towards change. Google chose Gut to work on the spot, and the Miami agency's founders are Latinx, with 22% of the team identifying as a person of color and 62% identifying as female.
Another brand that walked the talk on Game Day was Hologic. The representation story was ingrained in the product narrative itself given the brand is focused on women's health. By being intentional in its selection of female leaders both in front and behind the camera, viewers were able to immerse themselves in the "Her Health is Her Wealth" anthem with the enigmatic energy of Mary J. Blige. Diversity was honored with the choice of director, agency creative leaders, media, PR, and the broader army of specialists needed to execute the high-powered and engaging spot.
The NFL's "Bring Down The House" cast a Black family as the hero with NFL players also featured, acknowledging the fact that the league is 70% Black. Importantly, the NFL was not the only brand to cast people of color in lead roles. Sam's Club, Pringles, Caesars Sportsbook, BMW, Vroom, Booking.com and Squarespace also did so. Many of these lead roles were played by celebrities -- Zendaya as a sea shells entrepreneur with rapper Andre "3000" Benjamin jointly appeared in Squarespace's ad; JB Smoove played Julius Caesar and Halle Berry was charming hostess Cleopatra in the Caesars' ad; Kevin Hart was the "VIP guest" lead in the Sam's Club's spot; Idris Elba was the welcoming face of Booking.com, and Salma Hayek was glamorous Hera in the BMW spot.
Meta vs Down to Earth
There was one celebrity who touched on issues on a planetary scale -- in one of the few ads to touch on the environment and Mother Earth (not counting the seven electric car ads from BMW to Polestar).
As referenced above, the #TeamEarth Salesforce spot showed Matthew McConaughey floating in a hot-air balloon over the San Francisco Bay Area challenging viewers to focus on earth before we dream of space -- with a definite dig at Bezos, Musk and Branson. He implores us, "while the others look to the metaverse and Mars, let's stay here and restore ours." This ad will be remembered for this message -- an exquisite execution with subtle nods to Salesforce's brand narrative -- with "blaze new trails" and "this ain't rocket science" referring to Salesforce's Einstein product perhaps?
Going from space travel to the metaverse, let's turn our attention to the Meta in the room. Meta's Super Bowl debut under their new name tried to capture a feeling of nostalgia by featuring a self-referential story that started in real life inside a run-down pizza joint called Questy's, with an animatronic house band called The Cometeers grooving away to "Don't You (Forget About Me)."
Fast forward to the future, and the members of the band get back together again in the vibrant and more optimistic meta world of the "Bosworth Space Center," enjoying the mysteries of space through their Quest VR goggles. Is this an apt metaphor for Facebook's attempt to transform from controversial social media giant to an immersive and less divisive meta environment? Perhaps. The ad certainly was entertaining, as viewers followed the adventures of Harry, its shaggy animatronic canine character. It counts as one of the Super Bowl ads that relied on the animal kingdom -- others included the sloth and jungle animals of the Doritos/Cheetos spot, the Clydesdale from Budweiser, the mythical winged horse "Peggy Pegasus" from BMW and of course the robodog from KIA.
The objective of the Meta ad was simply to show what is currently available on VR today. Pity about the disclaimer: "Screen images simulated and not representative of our current product. User experience will vary."
Substance vs Sizzle
At the end of the day, the might of a :30 spot is measured by its ability to impact brand metrics (from awareness to intent to actual purchase to loyalty and WOM). Not all these objectives need to be achieved at once, but touching on enough of them over time to warrant a $200K+ spend per second should be the target of any effective marketing campaign. At this year's Super Bowl, we were dazzled by a lot of A-lister sizzle and some instances of substance. If we use customer actions as a metric, then the two "C" brands win -- Cue's COVID-19 health monitor garnered 10,000 times more hits on its website compared to pre-game and Coinbase drove 20 million app downloads with its minute-long QR dance.
As brands look to continue strengthening their story narrative for the rest of 2022, considering the current zeitgeist, there will be a premium placed on entertainment with substance -- not just brand substance, but social impact substance. We only saw glimpses of this from a representation angle from Pixel 6 and Hologic, from a #TeamEarth perspective from Salesforce and from a "enjoy life, not stuff" lens from Expedia. Perhaps people are weary of too much substance and sentimentality and the grit of reality. After all, there was no direct reference to the pandemic, no salute to health workers or mention of the importance of getting the COVID shot.
Escapism ruled the night. Could brands have done more on the greatest stage that money can buy? As Americans enter a third year facing an unrelenting pandemic and economic uncertainty, we need brands to step up to drive not only the highest brand returns but also to speak up and address the biggest social challenges of our time. They need to go beyond the sizzle, take charge and demonstrate brave leadership -- while still holding on to the humor, glamor and ardor of a Hollywood-inspired trailer.
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The opinions expressed here are the author's views and do not necessarily represent the views of MediaVillage.com/MyersBizNet.