Did this year’s Super Bowl ads deliver touchdowns?

By Kevan Barber

7th February 2020

Another year, another celebration of consumerism in its most extravagant form – one that’s, for the most part, bold, fun and entertaining. This year, brands have approached the event as Keegan’s Newcastle United of the 90s would have; it was a night for the entertainers. That’s in contrast to Cannes Lions-winning campaigns that are often pitched as being more careful, considered and working towards a higher purpose, more like Pep’s Manchester City.

Enough of the ‘soccer’ comparisons. Back to the ‘football’.

Advertisers grabbing a spot this year were willing to take a punt on an incredible $5.6m per 30 seconds – but why? One answer comes through the fact that these ads are watched by a broad domestic and global audience during what is a culturally significant and celebratory event. And whilst the TV networks (which rotate annually) make a killing from the Super Bowl, there’s added value for advertisers through their creations being viewed on social media on the night and beyond. To look at that massive figure of $5.6m for 30 seconds in isolation would be a mistake, these ads have legs far beyond the bars and homes of the US.

Firstly, which brands had fans reaching for half-time popcorn?

Bill Murray reprised his Groundhog Day role for Jeep, with an ad that evoked a feeling of nostalgia, with a production that wasn’t without challenges, Murray has no phone or agent! As well as providing nostalgia and Murray’s star power, the ad remains easily understood even if you’ve never watched the movie. The attention to detail and way in which the Jeep brand is present, but not overbearing, ensures it remains enjoyable for the more dedicated movie fan. It’s a risky business doing a remake of such a revered classic; if it falls flat through a clumsy recreation of the scenes, there’s the strong chance it does more harm than good to the brand. This one works brilliantly.

Bud Light has a heritage when it comes to entertaining and memorable Super Bowl ads – we all know the phrase ‘Dilly, Dilly!’. This year’s success came from irreverence in response to a surprising product launch – an alcoholic seltzer. That sense of surprise is key to the ad’s success. Bud Light know the product will take some getting used to, as Post Malone’s spleen alludes to. Comedic touches are scattered throughout, centred on Malone as star of the spot – with his inner body workers sporting his distinctive facial tattoos throughout. Of all the ads from the night this is the one that grabbed the biggest laugh from me, along with the final seconds of Snickers’ ‘Maybe the World Just Needs A Snickers’ which you can take a look at here. And the best part? They followed it up with a second ad later in the game.

Porsche hadn’t advertised at the Super Bowl for 23 years and came in with something that’s almost unexpected from a luxury car maker. It maintains the expected, beautiful sweeping shots of cars in amazing locations, but combines these with a story with a twist, and humour that makes it worth watching. The craft and quality reflects the cars; this is a cinematic piece for cars good enough for a Hollywood production. It’s a two-and-a-half-minute movie trailer essentially and my pick of the night. Even if a Porsche Cayman isn’t likely to be your next car, you’re able to leave this ad feeling entertained and with an appreciation of Porsche and its cars.

There were opportunities taken by some brands to inject emotion into proceedings, to help position themselves as having the back of Americans. Two of the best came from tech giants Microsoft and Google.

Microsoft’s effort has been ranked the ‘Most Emotionally Effective’ of the night and it’s clear to see why. By featuring Katie Sowers, the first female openly gay coach to make it to a Super Bowl – the ad immediately engages her 49ers fans, giving them pride in the team, on top of the pride they already had in reaching their first Super Bowl since 1994. It is also hugely relatable and inspiring regardless which team you support. Through Katie the brand has been able to share a message of inclusivity across the NFL, a brand that has had its own inclusivity challenges to overcome in recent seasons.

Google pulled on the heartstrings in a similar way to Apple’s Christmas ad The Surprise with ‘Loretta’. Its success for me comes with an image in my head of three generations (maybe more) coming together to watch a game. Each of those families will have their own ‘Loretta’, a family member to cherish and remember who’s not on the sofa with them. Apple and now Google are cleverly deploying these emotions to help become the good guys in the eyes of consumers, balanced against reputational issues that hit the sector.

Taking into consideration the patriotic nature of the night and combining it with purpose came the approach from Michelob ULTRA. The brand’s promise is to turn six square feet of US farming land organic for every six-pack bought. A noble nod to the US’ agricultural heartland, rarely featured in advertising, with the potential to be transformative in the best-case scenario. But on the other hand, it’s quite a hard concept to grasp for the consumer. When you enter the liquor store is it a message that’s easily understood? It’s difficult to understand if six metres square a contribution worth shouting about or not. Do these doubts and questions being asked by the consumer cause unnecessary cynicism towards the scheme generally?

Super Bowl LIV delivered both on the field and off. My advice for being amongst the top advertisers on the night would be to keep the spot entertaining and funny. A Hollywood star is an amazing asset for an advertiser but the ones that have stood out in 2020 really managed to make them central to the storyline of their adverts. The next question is, what sporting event is going to become the advertising showcase for the UK? My vote has got to be for the darts final.