What We Can Learn from the Super Bowl Ads

Written by:



The Super Bowl is the single biggest television event of the year, both in terms of viewership and dollars spent in advertising. This year\’s 53rd Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams, while considered a somewhat boring game, still scored 98.2 million television viewers, with an additional 2.6 million live streaming, for a total viewing audience of 100.7 million. The Super Bowl television audience was down 5 percent over last year and 12 percent since 2017, but the cost of advertising — $5.25 million for a 30-second spot, was up slightly from last year\’s $5.2 million. That price excludes the cost of producing a commercial which is estimated to be an average of $4.6 to $5.5 million.

An expensive proposition for advertisers, but one considered worth the investment; the ads have become a part of the Super Bowl experience and are watched closely. And they are hyped in the press, posted and re-posted on social media for even more exposure. The Super Bowl is a unique chance for brands and companies to define themselves to customers and tell their stories to a mass audience in a positive and upbeat environment.

Messaging by Design

To make the most of their investment, advertisers spend heavily on research to gauge what is important to consumers so their ads will resonate and be more effective. Advertising is, after all, the art of persuasion. To be persuasive you need to have the ear, heart and mind of the customer. To engage fully, in a way that is meaningful, relevant and important to the target audience. The question is, what can you learn from these ads about trends and ideas that are applicable to customers who buy your products and shop in your stores?

When You Have a Story to Tell, Stay on Message

Like the game this year, advertisers were blander and more risk averse than in previous years. There was nothing like the 1984 groundbreaking Apple commercial introducing the Macintosh.

Bud Light, the single largest brand advertiser in Super Bowl 53, spent $23.5 million and stuck to what is essentially product advertising. A series of commercials, all set in the Middle Ages, tell a story about the ingredients in Bud Light. No corn syrup: Miller Lite and Coors have corn syrup. Bud Light contains only four ingredients: water, barley, rice and hops. The ads were preceded by Bud Light\’s listing its ingredients on its bottles and cans reinforcing its ingredient story. Budweiser also added a co-branded spot with HBO\’s Game of Thrones, a win for both brands, which capitalized on the natural convergence of their audiences and the Middle Ages theme.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, parent of Bud Light, was the largest single corporate Super Bowl advertiser spending $59 million in total. In its corporate spot, \”Wind Never Felt Better,\” the Dalmatian mascot of the iconic Clydesdales is viewed sitting atop the wagon, nose sniffing and ears flopping to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan\’s 60s anthem, Blowin\’ In the Wind. The camera pulls back first to the Clydesdales, then to fields somewhere in homespun, rural America, then to a wind farm and finally to the Budweiser logo on the wind turbines \”Now Brewed with Wind for a Better Tomorrow\” superimposed on the screen. The message is clear and strong: Budweiser is committed to sustainable energy. Possibly risky in our divided country where many dismiss climate change as a threat, but, an issue Budweiser has taken on seriously, committing to purchasing 100 percent of electricity from renewable sources of power by 2025 for its brewing and verticalized operations.

All of this adds up to good business and good communications. A 2018 survey by Cone indicated that 77 percent of Americans say they feel a stronger emotional connection with companies driven by purpose and 79 percent say they are more loyal to such brands.

Technology and Us

We are heading toward a more mechanized, technologically integrated future. Robotics and artificial intelligence are more and more a part of our daily lives. Today, 25 percent of U.S. homes have voice-enabled devices. Whether asking Siri or Alexa to do something for us, or working in a streamlined factory or distribution center where robots now work alongside workers, technology is something consumers both depend on and fear. A recent Pew survey found that 72 percent of Americans are worried that machines will take their jobs.

Several advertisers recognized this concern. Amazon, the second largest corporate advertiser spent $25 million this year with a good portion of that on \”Not Everything Makes the Cut.\” This humorous ad features Harrison Ford, Forest Whittaker and Abbi Jackson and Ilana Glazer using Alexa products that backfire or go wrong. In Pringles\’ \”Sad Device,\” the Echo can tell how many combinations of Pringles there are (318,000), but bemoans the fact that she has \”no hands to stack with, no mouth to taste with, and no soul to feel with,\” before essentially being told to shut up and just play music. TurboTax\’s robot child will never have the complex, empathetic emotions needed to be a human CPA. Michelob Ultra\’s robot can outpace humans at cycling, running and golf but can\’t enjoy the camaraderie of drinking a beer. Robots use machine learning to design an ad for Sprint featuring sports legend Bo Jackson, a mermaid and a flying horse which, of course, makes no sense. But it is Jackson, the human, who can explain Sprint\’s benefit clearly, reinforcing the theme that while technology is ever expanding and here to stay we humans, at least for now, are still in charge.

Back to the Future

Nostalgia is a counterpoint to technology. Several spots brought us back to the 90s, while not that long ago, still a much simpler, less data infused and tech dependent time. Sara Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges reprised their roles of Carrie Bradshaw and The Dude switching their regular drinks, a Cosmopolitan for her, a White Russian for the Dude, to Stella Artois. Doritos paired The Back Street Boys and Chance the Rapper in a nostalgic twist on \”I Want It That Way.\” In Olay\’s \”Killer Skin,\” 90s teen idol and Buffy the Vampire star Sarah Michelle Geller\’s phone doesn\’t recognize her – thanks to Olay, so she is unable to use it to call for help when a masked intruder enters.

Women Are Empowered

We are now smack in the middle of the #MeToo era and also the \”Year of the Woman\” in politics. In 2018, partly as a backlash to Donald Trump, more women ran for office than ever before. A total of 117 won elections and 127 women now hold seats in Congress, the largest number in U.S. history.

Super Bowl ads reflected this phenomenon, most notably with Serena Williams for Bumble, the female swiping dating app. In \”The Ball is in Her Court,\” Serena tells women \”don\’t wait to be told your place… to make the first move, in love, in work, in life… And most of all don\’t wait to be given power because here is what they won\’t tell you: We already have it.\”

It\’s also important to note that of the many women who appeared in Super Bowl ads this year — whether celebrities like Cardi B (Pepsi), Kristin Chenoworth (Avocados from Mexico), Zoe Kravitz (Michelob Ultra), Karly Kloss (Wix), or actors playing roles — none were objectified.

Emotion Wins: Go for the Heartstrings

Many Super Bowl advertisers went for the heart to create an emotional connection with customers. If done well, appealing to emotions, whether uplifting or tearful, make commercials and the brand stories they tell more memorable.

Verizon\’s, \”The Coach That Wouldn\’t Be Here,\” featured a tearful Anthony Lynn, former NFL player and coach of the LA Chargers, who survived a 2005 near fatal car crash, meeting the first responders who answered the call that night. Verizon, \”the world\’s most reliable network\’s\” on-target message: \”first responders answer the call, our job is to see that they can get it.\”

Microsoft\’s, \”We All Win,\” for its XBox Adaptive Controller, features disabled kids talking about their gaming experiences now that the Adaptive Controller allows them to play like other kids. The spot\’s 9-½-year-old disabled gamer, Owen, says, \”No matter how your body is, you can play…it\’s a really good thing to have in this world.\”

Kia\’s, \”Give It Everything,\” for the 2020 Telluride mid-sized SUV, narrated by a young southern boy, is an ode to West Point Georgia, the town where the car is built. \”We are not famous, just a small Georgia town of complete unknowns…we hope to be known for what we build, what we make.\”

Coke celebrates diversity and inclusion with an animated line drawing spot that ran just before kick-off, \”A Coke Is a Coke.\” Beginning with background music reminiscent of Coke\’s famous 1971 \”I\’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,\” the ad features voiceovers in various accents ending with a quote from Andy Warhol (also appearing with live footage in a Burger King ad), \”we all have different hearts and different hands…don\’t you see, different is beautiful and together is beautiful too.\” Coke\’s SVP of Marketing for North America said, \”…we have a long history of using the country\’s biggest advertising stage to share a message of unity and positivity, especially at times when our nation feels divided.\”

Google spent $20 million in Super Bowl ads this year. \”One Billion Words,\” which inspired the highest emotional engagement in Ipsos\’ real-time recall test, highlights Google Translate. Every day Google translates words for food, friendship, sport and belief. But the most translated words are \”how are you, thank you and I love you.\” Google\’s other spot supports jobs for veterans. \”To most of you these codes mean nothing…,\” but they do to \”…the seven percent who keep the rest of us safe.\” The spot shows us how Google can help veterans translate their military codes into civilian jobs.

Finally, The Washington Post promoted democracy itself. In a spot narrated by Tom Hanks, The Post reminds us \”someone is there to gather the facts… gather the story… no matter the cost…\” because \”knowing empowers us…knowing keeps us free.\” The footage under the narration includes shots of journalists who have lost their lives for the story including the Washington Post\’s own Jamal Khashoggi. The spot ends with a title over the screen, \”Democracy Dies in Darkness.\”

If you have an important story to tell, and you can tell it well, tell it. Stick to the facts. Stay on message. Reflect your customers\’ concerns. And, if you can harness the heart, do it.



Scroll to Top
the Daily Report

Insights + Interviews right to your inbox.