It’s Hard to be Funny, it’s Harder to Meet the Moment
by Adam Strasberg
Super Bowl ads both try too hard and they don’t try hard enough.
What does that mean? Well, most Super Bowl ads are filled with sound and fury and signify nothing. Hi-budget, hi-concept, hi-production value pieces that are as thin as tissue paper. They’re like last summer’s blockbuster, fun while you’re sitting in the dark, but completely forgettable the next day.
Now I say this as someone who both loves advertising and has seen all the Fast & Furious movies. I get the appeal, and it’s fine once in a while, but I want more from my movies and my ads.
I don’t think I’m alone either. At BPI we’ve talked a lot about the role companies can play around social issues. More and more consumers want their brands to stand for something, and more and more brands are realizing they need to stand for something, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because it sells more product.
The Super Bowl is one of the largest platforms brands have to talk to consumers. It’s one of the few times your audience is actively watching for the ads. It’s an opportunity to tell them who you are, what you stand for, and why they should choose your brand.
A good ad should be not only well executed, but should be buttressed by strong values that connect back to that buying proposition — why should we choose your brand? That’s a long way of saying most of the Super Bowl ads this year, fell very far short of that mark. We didn’t learn anything from most of the advertisers, a few tried, and I was interested in looking at which ones were the most successful.
In my opinion, this Chipotle ad “Can a Burrito Change the World,” is not getting enough attention. To date, I haven’t seen it on any best of lists, but I really thought it was clever and met the moment. Really well executed, and the interplay of the siblings helped keep it light enough without taking it off track.
Now it’s easier for Chipotle to run an ad like this, than let’s say Cheetos. This is already part of how folks think of Chipotle. Cheetos couldn’t run this ad (can Cheetos change the world), but it could try harder to find its own brand values.
I thought Anheuser-Busch did a great job with this in their ad, “Let’s Grab a Beer.” A beer isn’t just a drink, it’s a moment to connect, to share, to bond, to show respect. After almost a year of social distancing, it was a welcome reminder of the world we’re missing and best of all the ad showed us what was so important about grabbing a beer, it didn’t need to tell us.
Could Cheetos have done something along those lines? Cheetos are a snack, a guilty pleasure, shared between friends or a couple or enjoyed alone. They’re a little bit of fun, at a time when the world feels so heavy.
Another ad that failed to hit the mark, was the Oatly ad. Here’s a brand that probably does stand for something, that is mission driven. But that’s only a guess, because they thought it would be a better idea to have their CEO sing a silly song, rather than say something important about who they are, and why we should buy their product. It felt like they took the easy road of attention. It’s easy to get attention, to be outrageous, to get noticed. I used to say, if I start swearing in a meeting, I’ll get attention, and people will remember me, and probably talk about me… but that’s probably not the message I want to send.
Finally, I don’t think I could write a post about Super Bowl ads without talking about “The Middle.” Gosh I wanted to like this ad, it was so beautifully rendered. Ad Age called the ad “A triumph…A work of art.”
But here’s the thing, you make art for its own sake, you make ads to persuade or move people to act.
This was an ad that truly tried to meet the moment of a divided America. In the words of the amazing Amanda Gorman: “A country not broken, but unfinished.”
Gosh, I wanted to like it, and I think its heart was in the right place, but I think, ultimately, while its technical execution was near perfect, strategically, it was misguided.
The middle isn’t somewhere in Kansas, the middle is in New York City and El Paso. The middle isn’t a church by itself, the middle is a mosque and a synagogue. The middle isn’t a lonely journey in a jeep, the middle is a family road trip to reconnect (like this ad from Bass Pro Shop), meeting the in-laws, a trip to the country (or the city). The middle is about people coming together, but in this ad, the form and function didn’t match up.
On top of its singular view of the middle (instead of a more expansive view), what does Jeep have to do with this message? I mean, why Jeep and not Ford or GM or Volvo? I love it that Jeep tried, I really do, but as Boris used to tell me in film school, “Your work is on the screen.” Is Jeep really about coming together now? Has it always been about that?
And maybe that’s the thing about standing for something: It’s easier said than done. It’s much easier to be entertaining than it is to be enlightening, easier to be funny (which is hard) than it is to meet the moment with sincerity and honesty.
But to paraphrase JFK, we choose to do it not because it’s easy, we choose to do it, precisely because it is hard.