There’s no denying the hype – whether for the themed food, half time show, QB standoff, your team in the game or the thrill of what ads will grace our screens this year. We’ve talked about corporate activism, what consumers expect from those with millions at their disposal. Attention is inevitably heightened following a year of demands for change in the wake of various overlapping crises: public health, economic downturn, social justice reform, democratic processes and more.
There is undoubtedly a degree of risk inserting one’s brand into the public debate – particularly ones so emotional in a time of intense division within our country. Some iconic brands like Budweiser pulled their ad and instead directed the funds to vaccine awareness efforts – although the brand still made an appearance. Others, like FedEx, used their spot to show how they are progressing the country forward in a time of so much loss. Jeep, with Bruce Springsteen, emphasized the power of “the middle” and common ground, while the NFL highlighted their contributions to social justice through their Inspire Change initiative, not without its backlash. Speaking of backlash… Robinhood took the chance of emphasizing the democratization of the markets when many argue the timing was off – steeply contrasting with Reddit’s 5 second ode to its users.
However, many corporations took a more familiar approach and stole the show with star power – we saw Drake from State Farm, Amy Schumer as Fairy Godmayo, Michael B Jordan in a bathtub, Timothee Scissorhands, Martha Stewart and John Travolta in the backyard, four Maya Rudolphs making digital payments on horseback, the list goes on. We even spotted Dude With Sign sporting a less traditional ad approach.
Of course, there are always the cringey, yet still attention-grabbing spots… Oatly causing some buzz with its CEO serenading the camera, Dr. Squatch turning heads with its soap for men, and on. Here are some of the favorite ads from the BWS team:
- Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s| Lydie Neill: In its first Super Bowl ad ever, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s encourage Americans to get back to nature. This ad struck the balance of addressing the obvious hardships and allowing a potential solution to this “stuck” feeling many are having as we approach the 1-year mark of staying inside. This solution doesn’t cost much – it’s not just available to those with private jets or vacation homes, although that probably makes things easier. Just a fishing pole (ideally from a Bass Pro Shops retailer) and some quality time with yourself or a family member. The ad doesn’t address all hard-hitting issues dividing our country, but it does offer a bit of peace.
- General Motors | Ben Williams: Tesla is one of America’s fastest growing brands, dominating the electric vehicle market. More Americans than ever understand the risks of climate change. And everybody loves Will Ferrell. Put those together, play on our distinctly-American desire to be #1 (we can’t really let Norway beat us, really?), and you’ve got a winning GM ad, pledging to develop 30 new EVs by 2025. GM isn’t exactly known for tackling climate change, and the spot doesn’t waste much time in that space, but by positioning the ad as a challenge, the brand is telling us it’s all in on EVs and a cleaner future.
- Cadillac | Nora Wahlbrink: Cadillac bet big in their ad for its new all-electric vehicle with hands-free driver-assistance as the perfect vehicle for Edgar Scissorhands – “ScissorHandsFree.” I thought this was genius. For those who loved Edward Scissorhands, Wynona Rider as Edgar’s mom and the story overall made this an automatic win. But Cadillac skillfully made the story accessible even for those who have never seen the movie and included Timothee Chalamet to appeal to the younger audience. With a well-shot and film-like feel, this quirky ad harkened back to the past while looking forward to the future.
- Oatly | Jim Wyderko: Yes, the Oatly ad is bad – but in a good way. These days, the production level of Super Bowl ads is at such a ridiculously high level that it’s almost impossible to create an ad that doesn’t feel contrived or inauthentic. It’s oddly refreshing to get back to weird, dumb and poorly thought-out ads that rely on half-baked ideas which don’t make much sense upon completion. Rejecting the standard Super Bowl ad playbook (recycling old internet jokes or conveying some vague and hollow sense of “unity”) in favor of an attempt to actually be genuine and authentic seems like a step in the right direction. While the Oatly ad is not some grand completion of this experiment, I for one think we should embrace this style of “dumb ads” to bring our culture and companies back to reality. Ads don’t always need to change the world. They can instead be a spot for some much-needed distraction and an outlet for abstract creativity, even if every idea isn’t always a winner.
- Doritos | Karianna Torres: You can always count on Doritos to make an ad for the Super Bowl that will make you laugh or smile and I believe that we all needed some sort of consistency nearly after a year of so many changes. I never thought that seeing the day in the life of a flat Matthew McConaughey would bring me so much joy and be so relatable. It is safe to say that we all at some point have felt flat during the pandemic and in Queen’s iconic words, “want to break free.” The ad subtly acknowledges that we all want a break from quarantine and social distancing. Hopefully that will happen in the near future but for now I need to go try 3D Doritos.
- Anheuser-Busch | Nick Rosenberg: In a departure from their traditional annual Super Bowl advertising, and from some of the evening’s less serious commercials, Anheuser-Busch opted to focus on the importance of human connection in their spot. AB spotlighted a series of anecdotal moments depicting everyday Americans handling the ups and downs of life by taking a deep breath and sharing a beer. The emotion of the anecdotal moments shown in the ad resonated with me and connected well with the emotional intensity of the last year. As we all continue muddle through the pandemic and its wide-reaching impact, I thought this ad’s focus on the human condition fit the moment and helped remind us of the importance of reaching out and connecting.
- Jeep | Arik Ben-Zvi: This ad was destined to get a lot of grief for a bunch of reasons. But the fundamental idea is right. As badly divided as America is today, there is a lot of data to show the persistent existence of an “exhausted majority” who are just tired of the acrimony. This ad was for them. Whether and how that translates into the sale of more Jeeps is harder to say. But I, for one, appreciate the company putting its ad budget to work summoning us to our better angels (even if it gets trolled by the Twitter demons).
- Alaska Airlines | Steve Weber: Anyone who remembers the 1980s Men without Hats and their one hit wonder ’Safety Dance’ couldn’t help but laugh at this one. Getting back on airplanes is anxiety-provoking at best, frightening at worst — and this ad had just enough humor with just enough substance to ease some of that discomfort. It wasn’t a triumphalist ‘we will overcome’ the virus, and it wasn’t an overly solemn ‘we must all work together’ message either. It was more like “we can do this thing with a sense of humor and keep each other safe”. I can see that emotional valence really getting stronger (to good effect) over the next 6 months.
- Indeed | Abbie McDonough: This ad just hits the right tone at the right time. Without overtly saying it, the ad shows what the pandemic has laid bare — people from all walks of life struggling, but hopeful. They are waking up every day, trying to support their families, and aspiring to make something of themselves. This ad could also work in non-pandemic times, but it’s because of the current circumstances and staggering unemployment rates our country faces that makes this ad so compelling. And it leaves you with the feeling that better times are coming. That’s a message we can all cheer for.