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In Market: Game? The real fun is the advertising

🕐 9 min read

Tired of impeachment? Advertisers thought we were too as Super Bowl advertisers spiked even the non-alcoholic commercials with plenty of humor – or at least attempts at mirth.

Oh yeah, there were political ads. What presidential-type political ego could resist the temptation to tout yourself to 100 million-plus eyeballs? President Trump and Michael Bloomberg, one of his Democratic challengers, both ran spots that were, somewhat humorously, a little bit similar.

But in general, advertisers piled on celebrities, goofiness, nostalgia and a few head-scratchers in their spots.

“Overall, this year’s crop of commercials was just okay,” said Allen Wallach, CEO of Fort Worth-based PAVLOV Agency. “Thankfully, the game was far more exciting.”

Oh yeah, Kansas City, which the president says is based in some Midwestern state, beat San Francisco, 31-20.

Since the Super Bowl fell on Groundhog Day this year, it was nearly inevitable that there would be a nod to the 1993 movie. Jeep took the ball and drove it across the goal line, painstakingly recreating the town square and other locations from the film and casting original actors Bill Murray, Brian Doyle Murray and Dallas’ own Stephen Tobolowsky. The twist: instead of a Chevrolet truck, Murray, as Phil Connors, uses a Jeep Gladiator truck for his daily exploits along with a groundhog sidekick. The high point may have been Bill Murray taking a groundhog to play a game of Whack-A-Mole and apologizing to his furry friend.

Cheetos fried up the nostalgia by using the 30-year old MC Hammer classic U Can’t Touch This. The snack-food ad featured a man with bright orange Cheetos dust on his hands who can’t stop to help move furniture or take care of office tasks. Hammer himself — “Hammer pants” and all — also kept popping up to utter his iconic catchphrase.

The humorous approach of the Cheetos spot not only worked for Fort Worth’s Andrew Yanez, managing partner at PytchBlack agency, it likely sold some Cheetos.

“No one can touch it,” Yanez said. “I will be eating Cheetos’ popcorn.”

In general, Yanez was glad to see a shift away from preachy commercials.

“Humor is still winning the day in all spots and I am happy to have seen the comeback,” he said.

“This year it’s all about a return to Super Bowl basics,” said Kelly O’Keefe, managing partner of consultancy Brand Federation. “This is a year of pure escapism at a time when we all crave a little escape.”

If ads starred one celebrity, they threw one on top of each other. You needed a TMZ scorecard to keep track. Hyundai released its ad early, but it still drew fans during the game. Boston-affiliated celebrities including actor Chris Evans, John Krasinski, Saturday Night Live alum Rachel Dratch and former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz discussed a Hyundai feature that lets car owners park remotely with exaggerated accents that made “Smart Park” sound like “smaht pahk.”

That bit of Boston humor wore thin quickly with me, but I had seen the ad three times – without seeking it out – by game time.

Coke launched Coke Energy with an ad showing actor Jonah Hill rallying to meet Martin Scorsese at a party by drinking Coke’s new energy drink. Maybe I don’t watch enough TMZ, but I didn’t exactly recognize Scorsese or Hill immediately, so that spot lost me. And aren’t energy drinks kind of last decade?

Hard Rock International unleashed action movie director Michael Bay for a frenetic commercial showing a frenzied heist caper involving Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez, DJ Khaled, Pitbull, and Steven Van Zandt. That ad lost me, too, as I don’t have a TMZ scorecard.

Yanez found that ad difficult to follow as well.

“As a user of the Hard Rock Las Vegas, which is being closed, it was a lot of work to follow what was going on, only to realize I could stay in the cool guitar, but no rock or roll, only Miami vibe,” he said.

That was true for Mark Nelson, watching the game at home with friends in Chicago. He said the Hard Rock ad stopped conversation at the Super Bowl party he was at, but “the story overwhelmed the brand. As one of my friends said, ‘I have no idea what that was for,'” he said.

Charles Taylor, marketing professor at Villanova University, said many ads were “busy” with a lot going on. “They’re going by quickly and it is hard to pick everything up.”

The Super Bowl always attracts automakers launching new vehicles, and this year nearly every carmaker touted an electric car.

Audi unsheathed Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams singing Let it Go from Frozen to promote Audi’s suite of electric vehicles. Hummer introduced Hummer EV with a cinematic black-and-white ad touting how quiet yet powerful the car is.

Ford showed off its electric Mustang with the help of Idris Elba. Porsche promoted its Taycan electric car with a frenetic car chase.

“The Porsche ad looked to introduce an electric car that will squash a Tesla like it squashes bugs on a windshield… fast,” said Yanez.

A tinge of weirdness crept into this year’s barrage of humor and celebrities. Quicken Loans’ Rocket Mortgage had an ad that showed Aquaman star Jason Momoa, known for his buff physique, heading home to “be himself” — as he strips off his muscles and hair to reveal he is skinny and bald.

PAVLOV’s Wallach gave the ad a thumbs up.

“Jason Momoa getting comfortable at home was a subtle, unexpectedly funny surprise way for Rocket Mortgage to make its point,” he said.

TurboTax tried to tie doing taxes into a CGI-enhanced dance of wobbling knees to a bouncy song, “All People Are Tax People.” I think your mileage may vary as to whether those commercials were actually funny, annoying or just a puzzle as to why people spent so darn much money on ads that left people scratching their heads.

Snickers imagined a world where people sing on a hilltop (an homage to a famous “Hilltop” Coke ad) about digging a giant hole and putting a giant Snickers in it because the “world is out of sorts.” I think I know what the ad was saying, but I’m not sure.

Doritos added a dance off to Old Town Road, the smash hit of the summer by Lil Nas X. In the Western-themed ad, Lil Nas faced off with grizzled character actor Sam Elliott with silly, sometimes CGI-enhanced dances moves at the “Cool Ranch.” Billy Cyrus, who features in the song’s remix, also made a cameo.

“They threw it down with a creative showdown, mixing genres. cultures and making everyone feel good about eating a Dorito,” noted Yanez.

Advertisers worked hard to avoid the return of “sadvertising” from a few years back — when Nationwide Insurance did an ad about a child who died, among other gloomy spots — and generally steered clear of polarizing issues like income inequality or immigration as we saw in 2017.

Planters got caught trying to capitalize on the “death” of its Mr. Peanut mascot, teasing its Super Bowl ad nearly two weeks before the game, releasing an ad that showed the monocled, top hat-wearing mascot seemingly being killed. The “death” of Mr. Peanut went viral on Twitter. But when Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash, the marketing stunt suddenly seemed insensitive, so Planters paused its pre-game advertising. The actual Super Bowl ad was relatively inoffensive, with a baby Mr. Peanut appearing at the funeral. “Baby Nut” comparisons to “Baby Yoda” and “Baby Groot” sprung up online. I’m not sure I got the point, but maybe it got lost in the creative fire alarms caused when Bryant was killed.

But there were still some serious messages in the mix.

The NFL ran a 60-second ad about the devastation police violence has on families and its Inspire Change Initiative that was created to spread awareness of social justice issues. But some criticized the ad as league hypocrisy given the exile of former player Colin Kaepernick over his activism on similar issues.

Microsoft showcased Katie Sowers, the first female coach in a Super Bowl game. And New York Life focused on the different types of love in its ad that reminded me a bit of the holiday film Love, Actually. Verizon enlisted Harrison Ford to voice an ad saluting first responders.

Google’s ad, which proved popular in the USA Today ad ratings, stood out. It features a man reminiscing about his wife, using the Google Assistant feature to pull up old photos of her and past vacations.

The ad worked because not many ads took the “quiet” approach this year, said Paul Argenti, a Dartmouth College professor of corporate communication.

The ad is set to an instrumental version of Say Something by Great Big World. “It’s so hard to write earnestly and not make it cheesy,” said Julia Neumann, executive creative director at ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day in New York. “This was really, really well done.”

“That’s why it stands out, it’s a little bit slower and focused on a social theme,” she said.

I liked that ad a lot, though I felt a bit guilty feeling positive about something from our AI overlords.

But those ads were the exception. Humor and nostalgia, like Patrick Mahomes, were the MVPs.

“As the original Super Bowl commercial generation, it’s interesting to see retakes on old things: Rocky, The Shining our cowboy friend Sam Elliot, MC Hammer,” said Yanez. “Olds, boomers, are in vogue.”

Bryan Cranston starred in a parody of The Shining to pitch Mountain Dew Zero. Wallach thought the ad worked.

“The Shining parody was pure genius and right on point with Mountain Dew’s irreverent brand position,” he said.

The ad featuring Winona Ryder going back to Winona, Minnesota — which she is named after — to create a website for the town caused me great confusion. Nothing much happened in the ad, which shows Ryder in a snowdrift on her laptop being confronted by a Fargo-like cop. I was hoping they were announcing a new season of Fargo the TV show, but “Oh, geez,” it turned out to be a Squarespace ad.

Yanez said many of the ads likely reflect the “current age of the creative director in advertising… boomer, as the young people say.”

But the biggest question mark above my head was why companies spent $5.6 million for 30 seconds of airtime. And they did, big time, said Allen Wallach.

“The first thing that jumps out at me is that, even as it has been mired in controversy lately, the NFL and its Super Bowl have remained the premier advertising showcase,” he said. “That is evidenced by the fact that Fox announced a sellout of ad space on November 25th, and has since added more inventory to accommodate demand from advertisers.”

And if they ever announce a commercial-free Super Bowl? Why would we bother

(This report contains information from the Associated Press.)

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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