Super Bowl Ad Review: Madison Avenue Tries to Ignore the Pandemic

Super Bowl ads typically offer a mirror on society, but on Sunday they provided a window to the future.

Dozens of Super Bowl advertisers ignored the coronavirus pandemic that grips the nation, and looked instead to better times. Few if any of the characters in more than four dozen commercials were spotted wearing masks or social distancing, and some were seen gathering together in small groups — including a horde of “Bud Light Legends” made up of characters from decades of the beverage’s popular commercials. “C’mon, let’s grab a beer,” says one friend to another in a corporate spot from Bud Light’s parent, Anheuser-Busch. When’s the last time many people have heard that?

“Brands are going with a much lighter tone this year,” says Brad Emmett, co chief creative officer of the Detroit office of McCann Worldgroup, part of Interpublic Group, He helped craft a Super Bowl ad for General Motors that relied on the comedy of Will Ferrell.

Madison Avenue’s sunny disposition didn’t come by accident. Executives at some of the nation’s savviest marketers say consumer research told them this year’s Super Bowl audience wanted to laugh or feel optimistic, not wring its hands over difficult times. “I think it’s a massive release,” says Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, in an interview,  referring to how customers might view the Super Bowl. “So many people from across the country are going to be enjoying the event and getting away from all the stuff we have been through.”

Some advertisers deliberately sought to make people smile as PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay did with actor Matt McConaughey shown in a flat one-dimensional state of being,  Procter & Gamble enlisted Jason Alexander and dozens of his facial expressions to show what happens to a hoodie that isn’t washed properly.  Uber Eats revived the “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Wayne’s World,” complete with visits from Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey, And  Shift4 asked viewers to envision the prospect of an all-civilian journey to space.

Even  one of the nation’s beleaguered movie companies tried to offer a ray of hope, with Comcast ‘s Universal studio vowing to release films like “Old” in theaters – sometime soon.

Simply put, consumers just can’t watch more coronavirus ads, suggests Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer of the New York office of TBWAChiat|Day, who helped craft a Super Bow spot for a new flavor of Mountain Dew. Those commercials, which turned up in droves last spring and spoke of a nation going through “unprecedented times,” wore out their welcome quickly, he says, “It became pretty hard to watch.”

If ads did touch upon more serious issues, they tried to inspire. Toyota told the story of Paralympian Jessica Long, who had her legs amputated below the knee at a very young age. And Jeep enlisted none other than Bruce Springsteen, who called for the nation to come together after a period of division in a cinematic two-minute spot. “That was a ballsy, ballsy play,” says Chuck Meehan, the other co-chief creative officer at McCann’s Detroit office, who was monitoring the work of a direct rival of his client.

An ad didn’t have to make jaws drop to be successful this year. Several ad executives thought two spots for Rocket Mortgage led by comedian Tracy Morgan truly hit the mark. The spot had “classic” echoes, says Beresford-Hill.

Some ads didn’t seem ready to play in the big leagues. A commercial from oat milk producer Oatly featured its CEO playing music in a field and felt more like a pre-roll ad for a selection on YouTube. A commercial from Dr. Squatch, a maker of soaps and hygiene products for men, lacked the big production values expected of Super Bowl ad players.

More to come…

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