Four Takeaways from the 2021 Super Bowl Ads

Digital-native brands, 5G, and sustainability stood out in a year of brands trying to keep things light

Richard Yao
Feb 11 · 7 min read
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On Sunday, the grand American tradition of the Super Bowl match returned to TV after a transformative year, and brought with it one of our favorite weathervanes of cultural zeitgeist — the Super Bowl ads. As with years past, they reflected brand marketers’ best guesses at where consumer interests and sentiments are landing these days and, in aggregate, pointed to some interesting market trends that all brands should keep an eye on.

The Takeover of Digital-Native Brands

Super Bowl, the crown jewel program of U.S. broadcast TV, has long provided unparalleled audience reach for brands, especially those in categories like auto, CPG, and entertainment, whose business models typically require scale and wide consumer awareness to succeed. This year, however, things are a little different. Some long-time Super Bowl advertisers, such as Budweiser, Kia, and Planters, decided to opt out of buying a Super Bowl spot this time and instead donated the money they saved to a charitable cause of their choice.

In contrast, after a year of accelerated digital transformation, many digital-native brands, who are better-equipped to deal with the challenges that the pandemic imposes and building on the momentum they had in 2020, made their Super Bowl debut to reach a wider audience. They include:

All of these digital-native brands shelled out the big bucks this year to get in front of tens of millions of U.S. households and signal their legitimacy and credibility in a bid to win over the skeptics and late-adopters.

Some of the digital-native brands who opted in this year did successfully spark consumer interests with their big game spots. According to market research firm EDO, which indexes ads based on the search activity generated within a short window of it appearing on air, the top ranking brands include Dexcom, which aired a spot in which Nick Jonas rants about some of the cutting-edge technological advances before introducing Dexcom’s blood glucose monitoring technology, as well as the awe-inspiring spot for Inspiration4, which is offering the first all-civilian trip to outer space this fall.

Interestingly, Reddit and Robinhood, two tech companies that have been in the news lately due to the involvement in the Gamestop stock saga, both aired Super Bowl ads this year, but with very different approaches. Robinhood stuck to their “We Are All Investors” spot despite the recent controversy of the app limiting users from buying certain heavily-shorted stocks due to regulations, and promptly got dragged on social media for being tone-deaf. According to Ad Age, Robinhood considered pulling the ad but decided to run it after seeing its users increase during the controversy.

In contrast, Reddit ran a super-concise five-second spot designed to look like a broadcast glitch and gives a shout-out to the “underdogs that accomplish just about anything when they come together around a common idea.” The New York Times declared it “an unlikely Super Bowl winner,” citing that the cost-effective short spot became one of the most talked-about (and posted-about) commercials of the day. Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s fascinating to see the biggest internet drama of recent memory spill over to the Super Bowl ads.

The 5G Push Continues

As noted in our CES 2021 recap, the push for consumers to upgrade their mobile plan to 5G has officially kicked off as carriers continue to roll out 5G networks nationwide and millions of consumers now have 5G-ready new iPhones. This push is evident at this year’s Super Bowl, with two of the three major U.S. carriers, T-Mobile and Verizon, airing spots promoting their respective 5G services. T-Mobile, in particular, produced a trio of humorous commercials to position itself as “the leader in 5G,” although only two spots were aired.

Unaired T-Mobile Super Bowl 2021 commercial featuring Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski

That leaves AT&T as the only major U.S. carrier that didn’t make a Super Bowl push for its 5G network, which reportedly has been lagging behind its competitors in terms of availability and speed. Instead, the company chose a Lord of the Ring-themed spot that promotes its fiber home broadband service.

It is a minor disappointment that neither Version nor T-Mobile fully communicated with their Super Bowl spots, the consumer benefits of 5G other than faster speed for mobile gaming or more reliable video calls. This is by no means surprising, considering most of the other benefits that 5G could bring to consumer technology, be it higher network capacity for large crowds or embedded connectivity for smart home devices, have yet to take shape. (Verizon did promote their 5G-powered smart stadium experience in one spot, but that won’t be available to most people until live events resume.) Still, it points to the central dilemma in the 5G marketing push so far: most consumers are happy with their home WIFi and LTE networks at the moment, and until more substantial benefits of upgrading to 5G networks fully manifest themselves and are clearly communicated to customers, they will not be very incentivized to embrace 5G.

Keep Things Light & Non-Political

A big question that most Super Bowl advertisers must have pondered was whether they should address the still-ongoing pandemic in their spots. In the end, most brands chose the easy way out and avoided any reference to the pandemic entirely. Still, some brands decided to keep it real and gave some nods to the difficult times we are living through. There were no face masks and social distancing depicted in the commercials, but given the constraints the pandemic placed on production, there were more outdoor sets and fewer crowd shots than usual. But regardless of whether they recognize the awful reality or not, one thing that brands seemed to agree on is to keep the overall tone of this year’s ads lighthearted and non-political.

For example, McDonald’s created a spot that celebrates the joy of singing in cars and going to drive-thrus, which saw a huge spike in revenues over the past year for obvious reasons. Bud Light humorously depicted 2020 as “a year of lemons,” with huge amounts of lemons falling from the sky and ruining everything, to promote its new seltzer lemonade.

Job search site Indeed also didn’t shy away from giving nods to the difficulties of pandemic life, but still inspiringly framed job-hunting as a chance to start over. The spot from Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, which sells fishing and camping gears, took a similar approach and called for a return to the great outdoors “in these trying times” to reconnect with each other.

In an effort to keep things light and non-controversial, most brands stayed away from politics and social issues this year. Still, there are two notable exceptions that decided to get a little political: Jeep enlisted Bruce Springsteen to solemnly implore the nation to become “the RE-United States of America” in a spot titled “The Middle,” while Fiverr ran a futuristically staged ad that poked fun at Trump’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle last year. You can guess which one fared better with the Super Bowl audience.

Sustainability Surges as a Common Value

Although most brands shied away from cause marketing to avoid controversy this year, there’s one social issue that showed up across categories this year, and that is sustainability. From auto brands to restaurants, sustainability has emerged as a shared common value that an increasing number of companies are proudly getting behind, as they leverage it as a unifying signifier of their corporate social responsibilities.

For example, GE put out two humorous spots highlighting its latest electric vehicle models: one featuring Will Ferrell as the comedian tries to rally the U.S. to beat Norway in electric-car adoption, and another one that stars Timothée Chalamet as the son of Edward Scissorhands to show off the auto-pilot mode on its all-electric Cadillac LYRIQ.

Addressing sustainability more directly, Chipotle aired a spot focused solely on its sustainability efforts, including “reducing carbon emissions, saving water, and supporting local growers.” Told through the perspective of a child, the ad managed to avoid sounding too preachy and highlighted Chipotle’s efforts in sustainable agriculture.

In an effort to get the message across in a fun, lighthearted manner, some brands took a more whimsical approach to address sustainability. Swedish oat milk brand Oatly ran an old commercial where the company’s CEO sings a jingle with repeating lyrics “Wow, no cow” in a wheat field. Similarly, Hellmann’s turned Amy Schumer into a “Fairy Godmayo” that helps people to dress up leftovers and reduce food waste.

Overall, the Super Bowl ads this year delivered a lighthearted diversion from the uncertain reality that we live in today and provided a clear indication of the kind of tone and topics brands are looking to engage customers with this year. As an ultimate mass media event in American pop culture, the Super Bowl commercials continue to be a good bellwether of market and cultural trends that advertisers should heed, especially after a year as transformative as 2020.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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