Super Bowl 53 Grins and Groans

Super Bowl LIII Logo

If you watched the national yawn that was last night’s Super Bowl, you already know there’s not much to talk about. Following an NFL season that set all kinds of records for offensive output, the game was the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history. So yawn. The Maroon 5 halftime show, despite the lead singer removing his drapery-patterned tank top to reveal his monotone-tattooed midriff, was a nice opening act for a medium-sized dance club. Even the guest rappers didn’t elevate the performance. So yawn. Oh, and that team from New England, who apparently bought 90% of the seats in the house, won. Again. Yawn.

But perhaps the biggest yawns came at virtually every commercial break. For the third year in a row, the advertising at the Super Bowl was almost entirely unremarkable. With a few exceptions, the ads were mostly safe, predictable, and worse, platitudinous.

So here are your grins and groans.

A couple of themes emerged throughout the evening, and some of them are troubling. First, we absolutely have to stop equating Martin Luther King, Jr. with anything related to NFL football while the league (and the nation) wrestles with its own ability to formulate a realistic response to the racial inequality that Colin Kaepernick and others have tried so earnestly and intelligently to highlight. (Remember that Ram trucks tried it and failed miserably last year.)

Second, we have to get some context with the celebrities.  It’s great to have big names in your spots, but it really helps if they were relevant in the last, I don’t know, decade or so.  Li’l Jon for Pepsi, Bo Jackson for Sprint, Sarah Michelle Gellar for Olay doing her old horror movie stuff.  It just seemed like I was watching Super Bowl 43 by accident.

And what’s with the robots?  TurboTax, Sprint, and Michelob Ultra all featured robot characters, while Pringles gave a hat tip to Alexa-style AI and Mercedes-Benz touted its new AI in its new A Class.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Honorable mention to Bumble for their inspired and dead-on messaging with Serena Williams. “The world tells you to wait. That waiting is polite. But if I waited to be invited in, I never would have stood out. “ Perfect synopsis of Serena Williams and her meteoric career. And for a platform that is based on women making the first move, this is perfect copywriting.

HULU – Handmaid’s Tale season 3. The ad starts off with the familiar refrain of “It’s morning again in america,” the magical phrase written and narrated by advertising legend Hal Riney, which is an absolute dog whistle for any ad geek. It turned out to be a trick (and a good one) to get you to pay attention for the upcoming season of Handmaid’s Tale.

Stella Artois uses celebrities Sarah Jessica Parker and Jeff Bridges in their iconic roles as Carrie Bradshaw and Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski. They are both known for their particular choices in cocktails, and the ad shows that “changing can do a little good.” The reason I’ve added this in is that the ad also featured a previously-unreleased cameo from another famous beer drinker, “the world’s most interesting man.”

GRINS

Mint Mobile uses their basic positioning (wireless service for $20 a month,) and the typical consumer reaction of “that’s not right” to highlight something that is REALLY not right: “chunky milk.” The ad cuts to a commercial parody of a family enjoying chunky milk, which is gross, and funny, and camp enough to make the point. This is exactly what Super Bowl advertising should be: funny, weird, and super memorable. While I’m not sure about the nerdy fox mascot, I am sure that this spot got my attention.

Bubly is a new flavored sparkling water drink that comes in a variety of flavors. It’s bubbly, and the name is Bubly. And so who better to get to promote it than a guy named Bublé? Perfect. It’s funny. It’s simple.  And it’s smart.  A great deadpan performance by Michael Bublé feigning offense. And the best part? The name of the brand (if you include the Bublé mispronunciation,) is mentioned 11 times, along with several close-ups of the product. It’s Advertising 101 done to the highest order, and is probably the best all-around ad of the night.

My favorite spots of the night, however, came from T-Mobile. They went low-budget (not counting the $20 million+ media buy, of course,) with simple text messaging interchanges. The first spot features an exchange with Cathy. The texter (not sure if it’s a male or female,) simply asks “hey what’s up?” Cathy responds with a miles-long response about her life, and how she’s searching for meaning. If you read it through, it’s an absolutely hysterical rant in a very comedic and non-threatening way. And something we can all relate to.

T-Mobile followed it up with three more spots, including an exchange between a dad and his daughter, where the dad is texting the daughter, but is using his mobile phone like a search engine. Daughter responds “Dad, this isn’t Google!” (My guess is they underwrote some portion of this spot.)

Another features an exchange between a couple trying to figure out what’s for dinner THAT TURNS INTO A CO-PROMOTION WITH TACO BELL. And another between Mike and someone else that turns into a hysterical miscommunication THAT TURNS INTO A CO-PROMOTION WITH LYFT.

Again, this is simple, and funny, and entertaining enough to hold your attention throughout. And since the other wireless carriers were gallivanting off into honoraria of first responders and dredging up Bo Jackson, T-Mobile wins share of mind this year. A huge bounce-back from their letdown of last year.

GROANS

Weather Tech seems to have lost its focus. After coming on the scene a few years back, and making a simple statement about American-made quality, they made the mistake this year of trying to cram two ads into one with their new Pet Comfort products. Just bizarre, and unfocused, and not great advertising.

Bud Light seems to have lost focus also. For some strange reason, several of their ads chose to center on this notion of not including corn syrup in their beer. Which is fine, I guess. Except that several other beers don’t have corn syrup either. (And if you’re on Twitter, you found out in near real time.) And did they really do a Game of Thrones final season tie-in? Just weird. Especially for a brand that always seems to get it right, especially during the Super Bowl.

Speaking of weird beer commercials, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold missed the mark with their attempt to please .0002 percent of the population with an ASMR-inspired spot. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridien Response, and gives some people a tingly feeling in their scalp and down the back of their necks when they hear certain sounds, like whispering.  So yes. They did a whole spot of whispering. During the Super Bowl. For the 42 people who have ASMR.

This is the third year in a row of wondering where the big spots were going to be. As the other 31 teams in the NFL say, “there’s always next year.”

The Law of Environment

If you watched Super Bowl advertising this year, you saw a lot of big-budget, celebrity-filled laugh-fests during the broadcast. From Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman in a hip-hop lip sync battle for Doritos and Mountain Dew to Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. hilariously re-imagining “Dirty Dancing” as a touchdown celebration, there were some big hits during the ad breaks.

And you also saw some fumbles and outright clunkers. (Not to name names, but we’re talking to you Ram Trucks.)

Take a look at this Budweiser “Stand By You” commercial.

On the surface, this was an excellent commercial. There’s a strong narrative flow, very good performances, and a cinematic feel to how it’s filmed.

But this commercial was mis-run during the Super Bowl, precisely because it failed to maximize The Law of Environment, which I state here as:

Consumers are either open or closed – indeed available or not available – to your advertising message depending largely on the environment in which they find themselves when that message is presented.

Environment, as it’s used here, includes four important ingredients, which you can remember as the T-A-M-E scale:

Timing: What time of day or night is it? How long does the message last?  Does the viewer/reader have ample time to process the message in detail, or just in broad strokes, and general images?

Atmosphere: Is the viewer alone or with company? Is it loud or quiet? Is it indoors or outdoors? Up close or far away? If there is one, what size is the screen? What else is happening while the advertising appears?

Medium: Is the message itself in motion? Is it on a screen, on a surface, or delivered via audio? Does it use words, or just images? Can you hear sound? Is it interactive?

Emotion: How much emotion – and which one(s) – is included/embedded in the message?

If we review the Budweiser commercial against these qualifiers, we see that it demands the viewer to spend some attentive, even quiet, time with the spot to take it all in. The viewer can perceive the seriousness, and the smoldering heroics of the lead character. It’s perfect for a full-size screen to get a sense of scale and distance, and there is a swell of emotion, in the “going outside of oneself” or “doing good by doing for others” sense of service.

And while that’s all very positive, you can see how it’s a mismatch for the Super Bowl environment, based on the atmosphere.

To generalize, the “average” Super Bowl environment finds the consumer in a living room with a group of friends or family, with conversations going on, and it’s largely a social event with a lively atmosphere. When this ad comes on, it may immediately be perceived as “too serious” or “too quiet” or even too much of an intellectual investment. So it fails to connect. And that’s a shame, because it happens to be very good advertising.

Understanding your consumer is of course critical to advertising success. But when you go beyond demographics and psychographics to an understanding of these critical advertising receptivity parameters, you can “TAME” the environment to maximize your message’s efficiency, no matter where or when it runs.

Super Bowl 52 Grins and Groans

SB52_logo

 

What an interesting paradox. In a game that saw dozens of records set, including an explosive offensive output by both teams, the advertising this year was entirely meh. (Following a big meh-burger last year.)  We thought we’d see some surprises. We didn’t.

We got a few laughs, a few headscratchers, and we saw a few commercials that just didn’t make much sense. Here are this year’s grins and groans. And if you want a spoiler, here it is: TIDE won the Super Bowl, and no one else even came close.

Honorable mentions to:

Jeep: their Jurassic-Park-themed spot with Jeff Goldblum was pretty good, and their “manifesto” spot was especially good. [Take note kids: this “manifesto” spot is what they mean when they say “show, don’t tell.”]

Australia Tourism: did a nice job of disguising an ad for tourism in a weeks-long fake promotion for a new fake Dundee movie preview. With Chris Hemsworth in his native accent. A win-win for the Aussies.

Also of note:
Amazon’s Alexa  “replacements” ad;
Hyundai’s tug at the heartstrings with personal “thank yous;”
Keegan Michael Key “translating” for Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans.

GRINS:

E-Trade was a delightful surprise with their riff on the Harry Belafonte song, “Day-O.” In it, they poke fun (in magnificent ways,) with the simple fact that “over 1/3 of Americans have no retirement savings. This is getting old.” A sad truth, a smart position, a deft turn of phrase, and refreshingly good advertising for a singular concept: their retirement account offering. And best couplet of the night: “just got a job as a lifeguard in Savannah / I’m dropping sick beats, they call me DJ Nana.”

NFL teased at “touchdown celebrations to come” with a hilarious and well-acted (for football players) riff on a “Dirty Dancing” moment. Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants rehearse a future touchdown celebration with a completely choreographed dance number that, um, climaxes with Eli lifting Odell high in the air. It’s quite a moment, and a smart way for the NFL to capitalize on an organic movement that seemed to peak this past season.

Sprint pokes massive fun at their competitor (Verizon,) by showing that you can “learn” to choose Sprint, based on the sheer facts. Evelyn, an AI robot, asks her scientist/creator why he’s still on Verizon. Doc doesn’t have an answer, and Evelyn, along with all the other robots, including prototypes and spare parts, begin laughing at the doc’s expense. He’s embarrassed, and in the next scene, we see him in a Sprint store, explaining that his “co-workers” were making fun of him. It’s a long way to go, but it’s done smartly.

Hands-down, the winner of the Super Bowl was Tide. First, they do a spectacular job of staying on their core message, which hasn’t changed in decades. (Kids scoring at home – they stay true to a simple and defensible competitive position: that Tide is best on removing stains, and gets clothes cleaner. Period. Stop.)

Second, and perhaps more importantly, they shatter the concept of what “advertising” is. Instead of making a new ad for their detergent, they go into other ads – including recent and famous and iconic Super Bowl ads – and with the addition of a simple phrase, turn them all into “a Tide ad.” We’re talking cars, fashion, beer, technology, consumer packaged goods. The Old Spice guy! A Clydesdale! OMG! Brilliant!

At various lengths, and without warning, Tide continued to delight and surprise, and by halftime, I was on the edge of my seat hoping for more. So well-conceived. So simple. So stinkin’ smart. And absolutely crushed by actor David Harbour. No contest here. Well done, Procter & Gamble, and way to out-do yourselves from a winner last year. (While the spots appeared at different times throughout the game, see all of them linked together in the clip below.)

GROANS:

On a night when you have to “go big or go home,” I was surprised at how many advertisers played it safe. Let’s also note that while we’re in the opening frames of the #metoo moment and the #timesup movement, that there were ZERO ads that featured the subjugation of women in any way. But weirdly, there were nearly the same number that featured women in ANY way.

Seriously. A quick shot of Cindy Crawford, and generally odd choices in Iggy Azalea and Tiffany Haddish were about your entire feature of female actors this year. Can you say “disproportionate response?”

Compare that to the preponderance of men in the ads last night:

Danny DeVito
Steven Tyler
Chris Pratt
David Harbour
Eli and OBJ and several New York Giants
Keegan Michael Key
Dr. Oz
Peter Dinklage
Morgan Freeman
Dwayne Johnson
Jeff Goldblum
Bill Hader
Keanu Reeves
Chris Hemsworth
Danny McBride
Peyton Manning
Matt Damon
(And that’s off the top of my head.)

So, an overall groan for a generally poor response to the cultural climate. Instead of just bringing an umbrella to deal with how it is outside, the advertising industry collectively decided to shut the doors, draw the shades, and hibernate until who-knows-when. I look forward to a time when brands can deal with this shit like grownups.

In general, almost ALL the car advertising was a collective groan. (Just like last year.) Hyundai tried something unconventional, which I like. And Kia’s ad featuring Steven Tyler was at least entertaining. But Toyota was all over the place with their mixed-messages-hidden-in-you-can’t-go-wrong-with-Olympics-promotion spots. Mercedes-Benz seemed to be content with running a speedster feature spot that could have (and perhaps should have) run in June. A far cry from their Tortoise-and-Hare fairy tale positioning spot from a few years ago, eh?

Where was Audi, who has killed it (except for last year) over the last several years in the Super Bowl? Where are the truck spots for Chevy or Ford? Where was the boldness of “It’s halftime in America,” or “Imported from Detroit” for Chrysler? And where were all these Fiat spots we were promised?

But Ram (my biggest GROAN of the night,) spent a bunch of money to run multiple spots that didn’t seem to hold together very well. First, an “oops-the-Vikings-aren’t-in-the-Super-Bowl” spot was just confusing. And later, the brand was waaaaay over-reaching with their MLK spot. [Attention advertisers: if you’re going to use any quotes (or in this case, recordings,) of the late great Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., do NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT use them to sell a bloody car. In fact, maybe don’t use them at all, mmkay? ESPECIALLY when one section of this important sermon actually goes on to undress advertisers as “gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion.”]

Turbo Tax. I don’t get it. You’ve got H&R Block throwing major shade at you with direct shots, and you can pretty much crush them by highlighting your core position (simplified online filing.) Instead, you go in a completely different direction with monsters under beds and ghosts in attics. This concept of bringing “monsters and other scary things” to life, including the dark shadows, is strategically on point, (people are terrified of doing taxes, so show other terrifying things…) but really seemed to fall flat in the execution phase.

T-Mobile just missed the mark (and essentially the year) for their “change starts now” manifesto about equality. I appreciate trying to make broad statements, but in a category that’s cluttered and centered on features and price promotions, you have a chance to distinguish yourself in so many ways. But pivoting to the “we are all equal” high ground seems like an odd choice, and just made for clunky advertising.  This is especially glaring, given that their advertising was SO good last year.

Overall, a blah year for ad geeks, and for laugh-seekers. And that’s two years in a row, now.  We’ve got to see something brighter next year, no?  Until then, congratulations to Eagles Nation on your first Super Bowl!

Super Bowl 49 – Grins and Groans

If you’re a football fan, you liked this game. A slow burn, with twists and turns, and a dramatic finish. Good stuff. (Unless you’re a Seahawks fan, then, not so much.)

If you’re an advertising fan, you got pretty much a reflection of the game: a kind of slow and steady stream of ads, none of which made you say “wow,” and a few headscratchers late.

Mostly, we were left with questions:
Where were the really big ideas?

Where was Chrysler? (there was only the one Fiat spot and it was pretty funny) – but after Dylan, Eastwood and Eminem, they had set the bar pretty high, and not seeing them in the game was weird.

And seriously: what was Nationwide thinking???

A few themes this year that were notable:

Dads – three advertisers embraced dads this year: Dove, Nissan and Toyota. (And we’re not sure why, exactly.)

Puppies – Bud’s follow-up to “Puppy Love” from last year, and GoDaddy’s “controveersial” spot that never made it to the air (and it should have, since their “replacement” spot was meh.)

Celebrities poking fun at themselves:

Kardashian for T-Mobile was really good and funny and actually made good advertising.

Brosnan for Kia was very well done and a big grinner for me.

Pete Rose for Skechers was actually cute, and he was a good sport to take on that sensitive subject matter with such air.

The Esurance spots with Lindsay Lohan and Bryan Cranston proving that “sorta” is not good enough were pretty good.

And Liam Neeson absolutely KILLED IT in his I’m- a-badass-and-I’m-coming-for-you brogue for Clash of Clans.

The ads that made me grin:

Fiat and the little blue pill:

Mercedes Benz fable

Coke

Double Grins:

BMW i3 with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel

This spot was funny, had great performances, and made an excellent point: big ideas take a little getting used to.  Smart, and very non-typical auto advertising.

Snickers Brady Bunch

Snickers took their “you’re not you when you’re hungry” to a great new place, by going to a great old place.  Well done!

Doritos – When Pigs Fly

This wasn’t my favorite of the Doritos “crash the Super Bowl” ads, but it was still entertaining, light-hearted, and well-executed.

But my biggest grin came early in the game when I saw this spot from Turbo Tax:

Man this was just flat out good. High cinematic value in the production of the spot, and high concept in rewriting history around a simple (and relatively benign) benefit of “free filing.”

Of course, we all know it’s free to file your federal return. But you still have to pay for the software of course, and for state taxes, you’ll still shell out that pesky little 29.95 or so. Bah, details. They made a great ad!

As usual, there were some groans this year.  And one flat headscratcher.

Groans:

Cure.com insurance (pair of 15’s) – bad jokes, worse production.

Jumlia – credit to coming into the game as a first time advertiser, but it was forgettable – an animatic for toenail fungus. They could have made like a billion or so targeted impressions online, and still had a couple million bucks left over to buy a whole bunch of spots during the professional bowling championships later in the year, when toenail fungus really flairs up. (Duh.)

Squarespace with Jeff Bridges – just weird. Any ad that’s going to make you go to a URL to figure out what it’s all about is just a waste of the airtime. Who’s going to leave the game for that? And for Jeff Bridges acting creepy? No thank you.

But the biggest WTF this year was Nationwide Insurance’s “make safe happen.” I can’t even believe they chose THIS strategy, and chose THIS buy. Didn’t anybody over there THINK about what the typical super bowl viewing environment is? You’re talking beer, wings, chips, salsa. You’re trash-talking about your team. And wait, now we’re thinking about our potentially dead children? No, no, no. NO! Kids and puppies in advertising are great…but you don’t KILL them in your spots. Jeez! You’d think somebody over there knew the basic rules.

Outside of the Turbo Tax spot, there was no real altitude attained this year in terms of high concept approaches. A few bright spots, and a few duds. Oh, and Nationwide killing our children to make a very serious point at a really shitty time. And that’s STILL not as bad as that one really bad decision to pass at the 1-yard line by the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator late in the game.

Until next year, keep grinning!