IPG Media Lab
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IPG Media Lab

Brand Takeaways from the 2022 Super Bowl Ads

The big game spots this years revealed a lot about where we are with the crypto movement, online sports betting, and the metaverse

It is no secret that advertisers are constantly trying to keep up with the ever-changing consumer behavior and cultural discourse. Whenever there’s a “vibe shift,” it usually takes marketers a beat or two to catch on. But, it goes the other way around too; The best brands are often masters at spotting emerging “vibes” and deploying their marketing muscles to accelerate the shift for profit.

Every February, the Super Bowl telecast, still the highest-rated TV event in the U.S., provides a fascinating microcosm that reflects the ongoing trends that brands either want to catch up on or accelerate. During the 2020 Super Bowl, brands were trying to reach cord-cutters, push voice assistants, and lean hard into nostalgia blissfully oblivious to the hard times ahead. Last year, digital-native brands and 5G commercials stood out as nearly all brands sensibly chose to keep things light and apolitical.

This year, the overall mood of keeping things light was largely unchanged, but the topics have. The digital brands takeover that started in 2020 continued apace, with new categories like cryptocurrency and metaverse making their Super Bowl debuts. Sports-betting platforms hit the gas pedal on local ads in markets where online betting had recently been legalized. Sustainability continued to be a common value that marketers rallied around, with new brands angling to join the conversation.

Overall, the Super Bowl ads on Sunday once again served as both cultural weathervanes and expensive accelerants of developing trends in the market today. Here’s what brand marketers can learn from the top trends reflected in the big game spots.

Crypto’s Mainstream Pitch Rests on FOMO

Long before Sunday night’s game, this Super Bowl had been dubbed the “Crypto Bowl,” thanks to the number of crypto advertisers vying for eyeballs. As a milestone in the booming DeFi movement, crypto-trading platforms, including Coinbase, FTX, Crypto.com, and Etoro, all paid top dollar for a chance to convince consumers of their legitimacy via mass exposure. It’s a nice coincidence that the game was held at the Los Angeles stadium owned by SoFi, a fintech company that offers cryptocurrency trading with Coinbase.

As the first crypto company to air its spot after kickoff, Coinbase took a bold gambit and aired an unorthodox commercial that featured nothing but a color-changing QR code that bounced around the screen in an imitation of a classic DVD screensaver. When scanned, viewers were redirected to a Coinbase webpage that enticed them to sign up for an account in exchange for getting $15 in bitcoin for free.

The minute-long spot drew polarized reactions: Adweek named it the best ad of the game, but it ranked dead last on USA Today’s Ad Meter. But it worked: the Coinbase app shot up to second place on the U.S. App Store chart on Monday morning, and the company’s website briefly crashed due to the incoming traffic. Coinbase’s Chief Product Officer tweeted that the spot garnered 20 million hits on the landing page in one minute and generated engagement that was 6 times higher than its previous benchmarks.¹

Another memorable crypto ad came via courtesy of FTX. The company hired Hollywood’s resident skeptic and curmudgeon Larry David to ironically convey the coolness and hip-ness of cryptocurrencies with a spot that essentially equates crypto trading to some of the greatest ideas throughout history.

Like the Coinbase spot, this high-production-value spot also received a wide range of reactions, from sincere praise of its wry humor and clever use of Larry David’s celebrity persona², to disbelief at FTX’s audacity of comparing cryptocurrency to the invention of the wheel or the lightbulb.

Overall, the crypto ads at this Super Bowl shared one common theme: FOMO. Instead of selling consumers on the investment value or the utility in owning Bitcoin or Ethereum, all the crypto ads ended up pushing the narrative that not getting on board with crypto now would mean missing out on the next big thing — It is now or never; don’t be like an old man like Larry David.

In other words, the main goal of crypto’s mainstream pitch is to lure more unsuspecting mainstream consumers into the crypto hype wheel with flashy celebrity endorsements and sign-up bonuses. LeBron James promoted Crypto.com by telling his de-aged younger self that “the future favors the brave,” and eToro aptly visualized the act of joining the crypto community as a swirling CGI tornado made of people, all swept up in the crypto frenzy. To any critical mind, this sole reliance on FOMO as a sales pitch belies the grand promises that crypto platforms have been trading on.

As a byproduct of this emphasis on FOMO, there was no mention of some of the cool things that brands have been doing with web3 technologies during the broadcast. For example, in lieu of physical ticket stubs, which the NFL eliminated last year for public hygiene reasons, the league offered Super Bowl attendees free NFTs this year that commemorate their tickets and serve as digital keepsakes, which can be traded on the official NFT marketplace that the league built in collaboration with Ticketmaster.

Considering the growing cultural backlash towards crypto and web3 technologies, this Super Bowl felt like a missed opportunity for crypto companies to make a case for their legitimacy or demonstrate their value. Instead, crypto is being branded as an investment opportunity for the masses, even though it’s not being regulated like one. While this approach may be successful in converting more adopters in the short term (evidenced by the jump in app downloads for the crypto advertisers), it does nothing in crafting a new narrative that may counter the growing backlash.

Sports Betting Enlists Celebrities to Sell Risk-Taking

Similar to the bevy of crypto ads hawking a new investment opportunity, sports betting companies are also ponying up the big bucks to convince people to gamble with their money with flashy, celebrity-led spots. WynnBET aired an abridged version of its 2021 commercial featuring Ben Affleck, Shaq, and Melvin Gregg, while Caesars Sportsbook brought out J.B. Smoove, Halle Berry, and the entire family of ex-quarterback Peyton Manning for a dinner-themed new spot.

Unlike crypto’s big game debut this year, however, the sports betting industry has naturally been advertising around sports content for a while, thanks to the rapid legalization of online sports betting in over half of all U.S. states, including New York in early January. According to The Information, sports betting companies spent $1.2 billion on advertising in 2021, and that amount is projected to nearly double by the end of this year. Nationally³, FanDuel, DraftKings, Caesars, BetMGM, and WynnBET spent a combined $25.6 million on display, OTT, and social advertising in January. And they are certainly not missing out on the biggest night in U.S. sports.

Building upon its humble Super Bowl debut last year with two 15-second-long, made-in-house spots, DraftKing, one of the three exclusive sports betting partners of the NFL (along with FanDuel and Caesars Sportsbook), doubled down with a 30-second spot full of CGI stunts.

Titled “Fortune: Life’s a Gamble,” this spot tried to hammer home the idea that risk-taking is an inherent part of everyday life, so, uhm, why not take a gamble on the outcome of sports games? The clumsy logic was backed up by the “free bets” on the Super Bowl results that DraftKing gave away to over 10,000 customers; up to five people would even receive a $1 million free bet each, should they grab their phones and sign up before the game was over.

The mainstream spotlight on sports betting during the big game is a reflection of a booming industry. For years, the NFL and other major sports leagues opposed legalized sports betting, in part because of the possibility for cheating and match-fixing. But before long, the leagues have decided to “follow the money” and embraced sports betting, which is projected to become a $37 billion industry by 2025. The American Gaming Association estimated that 17.6 million people were expected to place a bet on Sunday’s Super Bowl online or in person at a sportsbook.

As we noted in the last trend of our 2022 Outlook trend report, The Great Escape, social and legal acceptance of many common vices is expanding. From marijuana to sports betting, previously underground vice economies are being legally sanctioned both for social equity reasons and for state tax incentives. In the U.S., more and more people support increased legal access for various vices with each passing year. And with vices going digital to meet their customers, sports betting has naturally become a key industry that has benefited from this shift in public opinion.

Whether this wave of legalization is followed by additional support for the social and personal consequences of vices is still to be seen. But at the very least, unlike many crypto-based investments, most sports betting platforms have been upfront and honest about the inherent risks involved in participation.

Metaverse Ads Missed the Mark

Closing out the trifecta of innovation buzzwords of early 2022, metaverse predictably followed crypto and web3 into the Super Bowl ads this year, primarily thanks to a baffling spot courtesy of Meta’s Oculus division.

This 60-second spot centered around a personified animatronic band that once played at a fictional restaurant finding a new life in Horizon Worlds, Meta’s social VR platform that the company aims to develop into a metaverse platform over the coming years. Meta’s marketing team said one of the goals of the ad was to show what’s available now in VR, versus what’s still years or even decades away. Still, the ad carried a disclaimer: “Screen images simulated and not representative of our current product. User experience will vary.”

Understanbly, the spot deliberately did not mention Facebook, choosing instead to promote VR to a national audience while solidifying its rebranding from Oculus Quest 2 to Meta Quest 2. Despite this, the spot received mostly negative reactions, with many criticizing its seemingly tone-deaf, dystopian outlook on the future.

Interestingly, this negative sentiment metaverse was briefly echoed by the Salesforce ad aired during the second quarter of the game. Titled “#TeamEarth,” the company’s sustainability-themed Super Bowl spot featured actor Matthew McConaughey floating over San Francisco while musing “While the others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours.”

The dueling narratives around metaverse are a reflection of not only how public opinion towards metaverse has been dragged down by Facebook’s ongoing reputational crisis, but also of how the widely accepted understanding of metaverse as a concept has been hijacked by Facebook’s Meta rebranding. To many, the metaverse is now synonymous with VR and Oculus headsets, when in reality, it is still a very early-stage development coming primarily out of the gaming space, and one with many valid entry points for adventurous brands to experiment with.

For now, it’s better for brands to take a more relaxed, fun-driven approach towards metaverse. For example, Miller Lite, which is blocked from the Super Bowl broadcast by the NFL’s exclusivity deal with Anheuser-Busch, still got in on the Super Bowl hype with a metaverse activation. The beer brand released a tongue-in-cheek game-time to announce a virtual bar in Decentraland, where visitors can play pool games while drinking branded virtual beer.

Coincidentally, the NFL also became the first major sports league to have a persistent experience on proto-verse platform Roblox. With NFL Tycoon, a game launched on the Roblox platform last week, users will be able to build and play in their own NFL-centered world. As a way to build long-term engagement with younger fans, the NFL plans to host virtual live events and activations throughout the year within the game.

Beyond these three new trends that popped up during this year’s Super Bowl, some of the previous trends continued to percolate through various commercials. For example, sustainability continued to be a common value that many brands rallied around, with the automotive industry starting another concerted marketing push for upcoming electric vehicles. In addition, Hellman Mayo tackled the sustainability issue via the angle of reducing food waste, while Liquid Death, a gothic-themed bottled water brand, pledged “death to plastic bottles” in its regional ads. Elsewhere, trends like health and wellness, digital productivity platforms, and nostalgia-leaning CPG brands continue to have a strong showing at the biggest television event of the year.

As we enter this decade of entropy, our cultural conversation will continue to shift and accelerate. And only the marketers that keep their fingers on the pulse of culture can effectively future-proof their brands.

Footnotes:

  1. If anything, this ad certainly proves that QR codes are more than just awareness plays. When combined with the right incentives, they may just turn traditional ad formats into powerful direct-response opportunities.
  2. FTX may be a newcomer in the crypto-trading space, but it has not been a stranger to celebrity endorsement. The company recently introduced a $20 million advertising campaign with Tom Brady and his wife, Gisele Bündchen, while also teaming up with the Coachella music festival to offer NFTs.
  3. Because the legal status of online betting still varies from state to state, FanDuel and WynnBets chose to run local in-game ads in markets where online betting has been legally cleared.

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab