So another Super Bowl Sunday has passed, leaving multitudes of football fans scratching their heads as to what to do on weekends. But don’t be fooled, the Super Bowl isn’t just about football — it’s a business as much as anything else. The fact that it has an average viewership of 80 to 90 million people globally at any given time during its telecast means that the event is a perfect stage for advertising of anything and everything.
Particularly in the modern era of the Super Bowl, advertisements have become ritualistic. We all know that these cream-of-the-crop commercials are coming, and, as a tribute to our insatiable consumerist appetites, we anticipate them year after year. Corporations know this too, which is why companies such as Coca-Cola are willing to dish up $2.8 million for a single 30-second spot.
More fascinating, however, is the approach each organization takes with its precious on-air time. Will it choose to be amusing in a classy way or attempt to start a comedic riot amongst viewers? Will it be severe, sincere, light-hearted or bizarre?
The trend seems biased toward the comedic. USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter — a ranking based on the surveys of various focus groups across the nation — listed Mars Inc.’s Snickers ad to be the favorite of this year’s batch.
This marked a somewhat triumphant return for the brand after its 2007 fiasco in which a Snickers ad was deemed homophobic and was pulled off air because of protests. This year’s commercial featured octogenarian actors Betty White and Abe Vigoda playing a game of full-contact football to little success. The twist, cleverly enough, came when Betty was offered a Snickers bar by a woman who appeared to be her girlfriend, revitalizing her back into the original form of a young man. The final shot showed the quarterback exhaustedly appearing as Abe Vigoda after being sacked, confirming once again that old people in unfamiliar contexts are always hilarious.
Other commercials followed this humorous route. Doritos brought a strong selection of ads, made all the more interesting by the fact that they were all finalists of the company’s annual amateur ad competition “Crash the Superbowl.”
Anheuser-Busch, as always, had various spots promoting both Budweiser and Bud Light. A Budweiser ad featured its logo’s Clydesdale horse displayed as developing a relationship with a longhorn steer.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s incarnation of the Clydesdale theme was no less bewildering than that of prior years, which begs the question: What does this have to do with beer?
The ads for Bud Light were slightly more conventional, although Anheuser-Busch’s intrinsic propensity for weirdness was not completely abolished as one ad featured a group of guys talking to each other on the phone in Auto-Tuned voices (not surprisingly, T-Pain makes a cameo at the end).
Turning up the bizarreness was Boost Mobile, which celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle” by getting the team’s former players back in their uniforms and having them grind around on a stage with geriatric props.
Equally perplexing was Denny’s ad, which featured egg-laying chickens screaming in fear of Free Grand Slam Day.
And another contender for the weirdness trophy was truTV’s commercial, which showed Troy Polamalu (of USC and Steelers fame) as the Punxsutawney groundhog.
If that was strange, the outright champion of insanity was Diamond Foods, which promoted both Emerald Nuts and Pop Secret popcorn in a commercial that upped the ante for ads that feature freakish, polyester-clad aquatic ringleaders and humans acting like dolphins at Sea World — a combination that likely left millions of Americans gaping at the tagline “Awesome + Awesome = Awesomer” (with the inference that Pop Secret and Emerald Nuts = Awesomer).
Arguably, though, the best commercials in terms of sheer execution were the ones that didn’t succumb to cheap laughs. Pepsi-Cola (though expected to) did not buy any ad time, marking its their first opt-out in a 23-year streak of Super Bowl advertisements. Coca-Cola took full advantage of this with two well-crafted commercials in an abstract, minimalist style.
The first, titled “Hard Times,” shows a bankrupt Montgomery Burns being cheered up with a Coke in heartwarming fashion, while the second, titled “Sleepwalker,” features a man walking across a hazard-laden African savannah in search of a refreshing, late-night Coca-Cola.
Coke has had tremendous success with its past advertisements — the latter commercial placed fourth in the rankings this year — which seems to corroborate findings that vague advertisements fare better with consumers than those that advertise their products explicitly.
If vagueness is a consideration, no ad fit the bill better than Focus on the Family’s controversial commercial featuring Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam.
The ad — part of the organization’s pro-life agenda — created a storm of pre-airing protest from women’s rights groups and pro-choice organizations, which might have led one to believe that the commercial was going to be more blatantly offensive. The actual result was much less interesting. It just showed Pam speaking in thinly veiled terms of how Tim was almost never born, alluding to the pre-birth circumstances in which many doctors recommended an abortion for the mother’s own health. This was followed by Tim tackling her and the both of them popping back up, smiling like a perfect duo. The tameness of the ad itself probably made it more successful than anything else, as there was little evidence of the group’s supposed extreme right-wing values.
When the Super Bowl ended though, there were two ads on a different level than the rest. First was the NFL’s own advertisement thanking the “Best Fans on the Planet.” Fitting for the game’s conclusion, the ad showed USC’s own Reggie Bush in breathtaking slow motion approaching the goal line to the classic countdown of a NASA takeoff and hurdling over a Miami defender. Words cannot express how well this commercial was produced, as the Arcade Fire’s chillingly epic “Wake Up” plays to the ecstatic cheering of fans, all in the same gorgeous slow motion.
The second stand-out ad was Google’s amazingly simple “Parisian Love.” In a single 30-second clip, the one company that needs no advertising poignantly stayed true to the pure simplicity of its search engine by following a man’s journey from a simple trip to Paris, to his meeting a Parisian girl, to their wedding, to the start of a family — all through the viewpoint of the Google searches he used.
It reaffirmed what people already know about Google but also told a story, which is a point that so many ads fall short on.
Both this and the NFL’s commercial achieved not only greater prominence for their respective organizations but took the medium of video advertisement to its greatest potential. They didn’t just try to promote a company or a product through silliness or sex or expensive effects. These commercials practically shattered the barrier between business and art. Google and the NFL, more so than any other organization, made ads truly worth the $2.8 million they cost and simultaneously raised the bar for next year’s Super Bowl.
It’s going to be another long 12 months before we see if any more companies can reach the heights of art while being tethered to the needs of a consumer society.