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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Who Won The Superbowl (of Ads, Of Course)

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

We already know that the New England Patriots, sorry, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Superbowl in a dominant fashion. I will admit pulling for Kansas City, but am encouraged to see that Tom Brady continues to defy age. Those of us part of his generation can take pride in this. However, as much as I love sports, my primary focus was on Superbowl marketing, specifically the ads.

At $5.5M per spot (plus design, development, production, support, celebrities, etc, etc, etc…), who actually won the “ad game”? While the winner of the Superbowl is clearly displayed on the scoreboard, who won the ad game is far murkier. According to USA Today’s Ad Meter, Rocket Mortgage was the clear winner of the popular vote, taking the #1 and #2 spots. I didn’t even have those two ads in my top ten. It turns out, Tracy Morgan encouraged his 2.9M Twitter followers to vote for the ads and other influencers followed his lead.

Does the “top vote getter” raise the trophy? Does it really signal if the investment was worthwhile? One question worth asking, did those who followed Tracy’s request engage with the Rocket brand? If so, maybe. Avocados from Mexico didn’t return to the Superbowl ad stage this year with an ad, but instead joined the party in the social and digital world. Sometimes the atmosphere and the parties are more interesting than the Superbowl itself, and the early reads are that AVO’s engagement numbers exceeded previous efforts when they did run an ad.

In the end, the ranking is nice to see and the awards cherished as both show an appreciate for the effort. The true value however, is far more elusive and depends on the goals of each brand. Awareness. Acquisition. Affinity. From my perspective, as I watch the ads and pass judgement on my fellow marketers (oh, come on now, we all do it), I look at the following three questions:

Was the ad creative? The type of creative effort that belongs on the big stage. Worthy of attention and candidly, the super-sized investment. Whether or not you are in marketing, you’ve seen ads in the past that have elicited the response, “WHY??” or “HOW??” Why did something think that this particular ad was worth the money? How did this ad get past layers and layers of decision makers without someone questioning the investment?

Ok, so if the ad was creatively done, the next question is…

Was the ad appropriate? Relative to the time we are in and more important as time goes on. Whether funny or serious, forward leaning or reflective, did it hit a chord or strike a nerve. There was a time when gluttony, crude humor, and scantily clad models were seen as “appropriate” in reaching certain brand’s target audience. That is NOT the case today. I know many were just hoping NOT to hear the word “unprecedented” in an ad because of how overused it has become, only to groan when it made an appearance in one of the later ads. If the ad was creative and appropriate, it's time to consider… Did the ad connect with the intended consumer? Ah, this is a pretty big question, so let me offer a few perspectives. First, if a “Boomer” thought the ad was funny, but the target audience was primarily “Gen Z”, that likely adds up to a bad investment. There was a particular ad that struck this nerve and the tweet that followed offered, “(this brand) would have been better off giving $50 to a TikTok user who would have made a better commercial.” Second, was the Superbowl the appropriate channel and worth the ad spend? One specific company produced what I thought was a good ad, for what I believe is a great product, but I have a hard time imagining that their $5.5M couldn’t have been put to a more productive distribution of the message. Finally, to what extent did the ad align with the values of the brand, or even it’s product offering? This is a slippery slope. Think of car companies or beer brands who try to lean too far into a purpose driven narrative, only to be rejected by the audience because the message doesn’t align to what their brand or product represents.

So, considering the points above and with no ranking order, these are the five commercials that were in my top five...

Amazon, “Alexa’s Body”. This one I may take some flack over, and that’s ok. This is just one person’s opinion. Several ads have attempted to make us comfortable with the idea of having a device in our homes that listens to us, helps us, responds to us, and according to some, may even be secretly recording us. I think that this ad did an effective job at moving us off of the “trust us” driven narrative and instead showed the functionality of Alexa in a humorous, more human-like way. The 60’s Mad Men adage “sex sells” was replaced with a humorous, seductive story line staring Michael B. Jordan that was well crafted, moved us away from thinking of the traditional female voice, and I felt for the husband as he was caught in the sprinklers. I think my wife laughed and wondered how to reprogram Alexa.

M&M’s, “Come Together”. This commercial hit the right chord with me. It was cleverly written, respectful of a time when we need to come together and be more empathetic, while recognizing that this is often harder to do than to say. It paid homage to pop culture over the last year, including the apology to the “Karens” of the world. Candy as a piece offering is often a good call. It doesn’t change the world, but can bring a smile. I will also pay extra respect to M&M’s social team who actively responded to comments, and when told that my wife’s name was actually Karen, the team promptly told my daughter and I that we should reward Mom with some M&M’s. One level above, my daughter was especially tickled when the M&M team responded to her picture of the M&M cookies she baked for mom with a “Daughter of the Year!” shout out. Now, that is sweet!

Toyota, “Upstream”. Did I mention how challenging it is when car companies jump into the social narrative and try to tie it back to their brand? I actually thought Kia did it well last year with featuring Josh Jacobs, but the commercial didn’t resonate well with many. I felt that way as the “Upstream” story that Toyota was telling continued to unfold – that feeling that I was going to get sucked into another feel-good commercial only to have it be one that was disconnected from their brand. But Toyota stuck the landing with this because Jessica Long, who was featured, is part of Team Toyota and the narrative was genuine. As one marketer put it, “maybe it didn’t sell cars, but we are talking about the brand today.” Toyota moved the needle forward with this effort.

Indeed, “The Rising”. I loved this commercial. Yes, it may have had the advantage of being the right product for the right moment and timing is everything. Except timing isn’t everything if the story isn’t told well. This ad was well executed, the message well crafted, the music well matched, and the visual (even with the stock image faux paus) connected us to both a sense of hope and a call to action. Out of nearly all the commercials, this one had a more immediate call-to-action and I have to believe that if you weren’t using Indeed, you are more likely to take a look today. A great effort, indeed.

Jeep, “The Middle”. Let me first admit my bias, I own a Jeep. Proudly own a Jeep. I wave at those passing me in a Jeep. I associate the Jeep brand with being rugged, tough, part of our American culture. Yes, I am a Bruce Springsteen fan. I associate The Boss with being rugged, tough, part of our American Culture.So, the connection seems legitimate. However, there have been several car commercials that delivered an “American Anthem”, matching the car with the right voice, photos of middle America and a waving flag, and many haven’t resonated. I think this one did. Maybe it was a better combination, maybe timing is everything, but I think this worked to positively spotlight the Jeep brand as the boss.Ok, I may have pushed it a bit too far there.

There were a few honorable mentions…

Beer commercials seldom resonate with me (despite the fac that I love beer). When one chose to take a “Greatest Hits” of all of their past commercials and bring them together into a nostalgic ad, I compared it to a “grouping of subprime mortgages packaged together to make bad things look great.” I’ll admit, that might have been a tad bit harsh. At the same time, I will also admit that a couple of the beer brand ads scored well with me this time around.

Bud Light Seltzer, “Lemonade”. Opposite of that cringe-worthy moment at the mention of “unprecedented”, this ad toured us through the lemons offered to us by 2020 and subtly told us that better days were to follow. It was funny, clever, and matched the voice and personality of the brand. And tied back to the product, which they taught us in Marketing 101 is always a plus!

Anheuser-Busch, “Let’s Grab a Beer”. The ad didn’t promise me the “lightest beer in the world”, “the greatest beer in the world”, or that I would be the envy of all my friends as the “most interesting man in the world”. Instead, it reminded us how much we miss the simple act of going out for a beer with friends and that together, we will get to that point again.

Now, how about those that I didn’t care for…

As often as I scream at the TV, “HOW COULD YOU MISS THAT PASS?!?”, I scream “HOW COULD YOU APPROVE THAT AD?!?” So yes, I have a list. Some of the ads felt a bit...flat. Others just didn't seem "more important than anything else" (the definition of paramount, if you were curious). But, as a faithful NY Giants fan, now is not the time to dwell on what could have been. It is time to celebrate the victors, respect those who came close, and like all good fans, see how we can improve next year. Cheers!

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