The Super Bowl and the Super Bowl of Advertising

Daniel Heller
Feb 4, 2019 · 5 min read
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Super Bowl LIII was boring. A low scoring, back and forth of three and outs and almost interceptions. A game that only players’ families and maybe their most dedicated fans would love. But last night was also the Super Bowl of advertising, aka the Super Bowl. As a Project Manager at an ad agency, I know that I will never play in the Super Bowl of football but maybe someday if I train hard enough (early morning client briefs, late night creative reviews) I will be in the Super Bowl of Advertising. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on last night’s big game:

What Makes The Best Ad?

At the core of every single advertisement is a desire to be remembered. You buy a Super Bowl ad because it is a lot of eyes across all ages and demographics looking at your message. For $5.4 million dollars for 30 seconds you need your message to stick with consumers. To achieve memorability, most brands reach for the same bag of tricks, big celebrities, over the top sentimentality, straight up sex, or just weird weird weird shit. I would argue that the most memorable commercials this year were from T-Mobile and avoided all of those tropes for sticking in consumers brains.

In their three spots, T-Mobile kept things simple, visually cohesive and lightly humorous.

Clean, clear, and memorable.

Each ad was the same visual set up, pink background, phone screen, text conversation between two people. Each ad had a humorous scenario followed by a strong tag RTB (an insider ad phrase meaning “reason to buy) about switching to T-Mobile. By keeping things simple, T-Mobile made the most of their Super Bowl ads and while they are not the ads that people will be talking about today they may be the most impactful in terms of actual impression on potential customers.

Brand + Social Statement

One tried and true tactic for advertisers in the big game is associating their brand with something positive in the world. It’s not enough however to just show a moving 30 second clip and slap a brand logo and tagline at the end. The ad needs to feel authentic to the companies work and ownable by the brand. This year’s Super Bowl however shows the dangers to this approach when that connection is inauthentic. Verizon as a cell provider who has built a brand on reliability and coverage, highlighted first responders thanking them for always being there in our times of need.

Moving but accurate to the brand?

The ads were moving and hit the right notes in thanking first responders but the reality is that Verizon has not always been there for first responders. During the devastating California Wildfires in 2018, Verizon limited data to first responders imperiling their ability to communicate. In this context, the ad seems less of a heart felt Thank You than an attempt to cover their ass.

Similarly KIA ran a beautifully scripted and shot ad telling the story of an small anonymous Georgia town, full of hard working people, full of dignity and deserving respect, “We aren’t known for who we are but what we do, what we build.” They even back it up with a scholarship for the youth of this town funded by the savings of not hiring big name celebrities for their ad. I really liked the ad the when I saw it but not even two minutes later a friend who was watching the game and browsing Twitter showed me a story on his phone. The KIA plants in Georgia have a dangerous history with one plant in West Point, GA cited for for exposing their workers to dangers factory conditions such as accidental amputation, burns and falls.

Both of these stories blew up online quickly undercutting the intended messages. Maybe Verizon and Kia will come about because the audience for the Super Bowl far exceeds the reach of some negative press on Twitter but both instances are reminders of the dangers when brands try to advertise their societal impact when the facts don’t back them up.

Beware Robots!

If Super Bowl ads often pick up on something floating in the cultural zeitgeist and reflect it back at us, robots are on the mind in 2019. TurboTax showed an inventor creating a robot child in his garage. The robot child just wants to become a CPA, but learns that robots can’t provide that special tax accountant connection only a real human can. Michelob Ultra’s ad had humans losing in sports and fitness to a robot, but enjoying a beer as no robot ever will be able to. Pringles almost makes us feel bad for a robot extolling it’s sorrow about never eating delicious chips. Not to mention robot cameos across a range of other ads. The message from all these brands seems to be, we are humans and there is something about humans that robots just can’t replace. The obvious irony is that while these ads sell us the companies’ humanity, their CEOs plot a future where they cut and automate as many jobs as possible in the never ending race for corporate profits.

Also it should be noted, while most brands promoted humans as the solution to robots, SimpliSafe doubled down, claiming the only solution to a bad robot is their good robot home security system…

My Actual Favorite

Advertising aspires to be art. Creative and strategist, sitting in a room, discussing how to sell something want to feel like they are making something more than just a commercial. Andy Warhol spent his career exploring the overlap between art and consumerism. In 1982 Warhol participated in a documentary eating a Burger King Whopper over the course of 4 minutes. Burger King took 45 seconds of the original footage, natural ambient sounds and all, and transposed it from its original context directly into the Super Bowl. It is only fitting that the commercial I liked most was actually a work of art, ripped out of context but still perfectly legible. Maybe it was a commercial all along. It certainly is one now.

Andy eating a burger is the platonic ideal of advertising

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