Monday, February 8, 2021

Some Monday Morning Quarterbacking about the Ads from Super Bowl 55


This year’s Super Bowl game was fun, especially if you’re a Tampa Bay fan, but the ads were not as exciting as the hype leading up to game day. There was no ad similar to Apple’s 1984 ad. There was no ad that was as memorable as Budweiser’s post-911 from 2002 with the kneeling Clydesdales. There were no animated Coca Cola polar bears, no Budweiser Clydesdales with their pal, the Dalmatian puppy, and no Budweiser frogs or lizards. And there was no Tweet timely or memorable enough to rival Oreo’s from 2013. 

The 2021 Super Bowl was a very different game and ad environment than any previous year. First, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the fans in the stands were essential workers, doctors, nurses, first responders, etc. These approximately 7,500 fans did not pay the exorbitant prices normally paid for Super Bowl tickets. Second, football fans submitted their photos to be made into large signs to be placed at empty seats so that the stadium would look full of people. And third, several brands who typically advertise during the Super Bowl chose not to advertise. These brands included Budweiser (no Clydesdales appeared in ads), Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hyundai, Audi, Planter’s Peanuts, and Avocados from Mexico. Budweiser’s parent company, AB InBev, announced that, instead, it would donate some of its 2021 ad budget to the vaccine awareness work being done by the Ad Council and COVID Collaborative.

According to Derek Rucker, Marketing Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, “A consideration this year is that fewer people will gather for Super Bowl parties (due to the COVID pandemic), which traditionally are the number two group party occasion, after New Year’s Eve. Watching a commercial alone, versus in a group, changes how people react to it because they don’t have social cues from others.”

And let’s not forget: “The thing is, by not being there, Budweiser is getting people to talk about them. That’s pretty brilliant,” according to Cait Lamberton, Marketing Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Planters will take the roughly $5 million it would ordinarily spend on a Super Bowl ad slot and instead route that money to recognize people doing charitable acts. The brand is calling them "acts of substance," a play on positioning the snack as a substantive alternative to options like potato chips. The brand is kicking off the campaign by giving $130,000 to Hook Hall in Washington, D.C. The owners of Hook Hall went "a nut above" by giving free meals and supplies to hospitality workers even when struggling themselves to stay afloat. Planters will also give away an additional $1 million to locally owned bars across the country that go above and beyond for their neighbors with the funds ensuring those establishments can continue to remain fixtures of their communities. Additional rewards for acts of extraordinary substance will continue throughout 2021.

So, what does this once-a-year advertising event cost? According to CBS, the cost for a 30-second commercial cost $5.6 million, which was the average cost of the same length ad for last year’s game. To put that number into perspective by Nielsen Media Research, the cost of a commercial during the first Super Bowl game in 1967 was $37,000.

Since this year’s event could easily be nicknamed, “A Pandemic Super Bowl,” according to Tim Calkins, Marketing Professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, “It will be a very different game this year, with few big parties, not many (live) people in the stands and no vast fleet of corporate jets winging in with big spending executives.” Additionally, according to Calkins, there were three trends to watch out for: different advertisers; pandemic messages reflecting the COVID-19 reality; and light, funny, upbeat, and positive messaging.

If you’re a marketing pro or a simply a fan of the ads, there’s much more activity regarding ads on Super Bowl Sunday than between the goal posts. This year marked the tenth anniversary of the #SuperBowlExp chat on Twitter hosted by Jim Joseph (@JimJosephExp), a famous advertising exec in New York. Participants chimed in with their commentary about the ads in real time, and I enjoyed participating for the eighth year! Jim’s fave five ads were: Jeep, Toyota, M&Ms, Indeed, and Bud Light Lemons.

This quote from Landor Associates is timeless: "Here are three tips to help you, your dad, or even your football-crazed grandma decide which brands scored a touchdown with their commercials: Is the ad on-brand? Will you remember the brand tomorrow? And, does the ad speak to the times?”

I’d like to welcome Julia Carcamo (@jccarcamo) back to my Blog. Julia and I met in 2012 on Twitter. While separated by miles – I’m in California, and she’s in Louisiana – we’ve stayed in touch through the years and reconnect every year around Super Bowl time so we can discuss the ads after the game. The link to our first collaborative blog post appears at the end of this post. We reconnected again this year, and our five thumbs-up ads and five thumbs-down ads follow below.

DEBBIE LASKEY’s top five:
Jeep: This ad was reminiscent of Chrysler’s “It’s Halftime in America” that appeared in 2012. At a time that is so divisive in the country, the themes of “The Reunited States of America” and “the road ahead (not behind)” were excellent. While some may have thought the pitch was unusual and inappropriate for a car manufacturer, we need to remember that Jeeps are typically American – and that we can all find common ground in the middle.
Toyota: The themes of adoption and inclusion were well-done in this ad featuring Jessica Long, a Paralympian champion born without legs. According to Toyota, #LetsGoPlaces together because “there is hope and strength in all of us.”
GM: Whenever you see Will Ferrell, you know humor will be involved. He was upset that Norway had more electric vehicles per capita than the US, so he took his electric Cadillac to Norway but ended up in Sweden while friends ended up in Finland. (Note, this “No Way Norway” ad is even funnier the second and third time you watch it!)
Ford: With the pandemic on everyone’s mind, the Super Bowl provided a much-needed form of escapism. But this #FinishStrong ad from Ford reminded us that “soon we will be what we were – touching, loving, living.”
T-Mobile: If you’re ever watched “The Voice” on NBC, especially since the beginning, you know about the close friendship between competitive coaches Adam Levine and Blake Shelton. And if you’re a fan and have watched the show for several seasons, you know that Gwen Stefani met her fiancĂ© Blake Shelton through their involvement as coaches on the show. So, this storytelling about their first date combined with the lack of cell phone signal was humorous and memorable.

And the five that failed to hit the mark:
SquareSpace: While the rewrite of Dolly Parton’s famous “9 to 5” anthem became “5 to 9,” and was just as catchy, the vignettes portrayed in the short ad did not capture the essence of the brand. When there are only 30-seconds, an ad has to tell its story and showcase its strengths quickly, or it will lose its audience.
Hellman’s: Amy Schumer as the “Fairy Godmayo” had potential but fell flat. Just think of all the creative sandwiches she could have helped to make.
Miracle-Grow: If you took your eyes off your television or other device for a few seconds, you may have missed John Travolta and his daughter dancing. And what exactly was the tie-in between the brand and the dancing? However, if the ad had featured John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John repeating their dance moves from the film “Grease,” then maybe the ad would have had more potential for success.
Indeed: While this ad featured the tune “Rise Up,” it’s important for employers to understand that the onboarding process begins with the interview – and that interviews are a two-way street. I think that message got lost in the ad.
Sam Adams: No one should be including Clydesdales horses in their ads (other than Budweiser). That should be an unwritten rule of Super Bowl advertising!


There were some shining lights in what I think was a pretty gloomy ad collection. Without further ado and in no order, here are my top five.
M&Ms: They are always entertaining. They always find a unique way of telling the story of the chocolate candies in a way that humanizes them, and always with a great twist at the end that makes you laugh.
Door Dash: I’ll admit I pretty much like anything with Daveed Diggs. I think he’s such a talented artist. I am constantly blown away by him. Door Dash did a great job. They didn’t just cast a great actor. They took a concept that we all grew up with from Sesame Street. The neighborhood connects us all, and there is no time like now to remind everyone. But they took the concept even further in supporting our local neighborhood small businesses. To me, everything fit together in this one.
Indeed: Looking for a job can be a gut-wrenching experience. There are so many different channels, and you never really know which one is going to be your best investment of time. But whether you’re just starting out or an executive looking for a new role when they least expect it, knowing that you have found the right place to put yourself out there is key. Indeed somehow managed to say we work with everyone, but they still managed to talk to people individually in the spot.
State Farm: This spot was just pure fun. I’m dying to know how much money they spent on all those influencers.
Jeep: I remember the first time Chrysler came out with one of these heartstring-pulling spots. Remember Paul Harvey telling that story of the American farmer. Each Super Bowl since then, Chrysler has managed to tell this amazing story of the American fabric. I think it touches everybody. All the rumors about Bruce Springsteen being in the spot apparently were true, and I guess this late game placement was a big payoff for fans.

I wish I could say picking losers was hard. Unfortunately, what was hard was picking only five!
Oatly: I don’t even know where to start with this commercial. The CEO singing and playing the keyboard? Or is it the constant no cows message? I’m not sure what it is, but this commercial just really hit me wrong.
GM: When did car commercial stop being fun and exhilarating? This was just weirdness to the nth degree.
Uber Eats: Everything Door Dash did with their commercial Uber Eats did wrong. They both took something nostalgic. They both tried to apply it in a new, fresh way, but Uber Eats failed. I felt like it was the same old humor over and over again.
Huggies: Whatever happened to diaper commercials being about making sure your baby stays dry or making sure they can sleep through the night? Now apparently, we’re making sure they can “go” whenever they want.
Draft Kings: This was by far…far the most disappointing of any of the commercials. Maybe it’s because I work in the same industry. They have so much in terms of reach and resources. I just imagined more. More excitement. More pizzazz. This was what they put out for Super Bowl? I would’ve lost my bet that they would’ve had the best commercial. At least when I ran in the Super Bowl, I put our chairman on the rooftop of our hotel!

According to Saatchi & Saatchi Chief Creative Officer Jason Schragger, an industry veteran who worked on Toyota’s ad this year, “We had a lot of conversations on every single word and every single piece that is part of this, to say, Is it okay? Is it the right thing? Are we not acknowledging some people’s suffering? Are we not acknowledging other things? How can we do something that actually helps people through this time without being flippant or needlessly inspirational? It is a really tough one.” According to USAToday, Schragger’s team considered a few different approaches before landing on a heartwarming theme for its 60-second spot, which spotlights 13-time Paralympian gold medalist Jessica Long and her adoption from a Russian orphanage.

And lastly, Jacques de Cock, a faculty member at the London School of Marketing, said the game will have been watched in half of US households. "The Super Bowl is a phenomenon unsurpassed in the world. It is one of the few national social events, which is also why social media traffic during the game is so high...What is also remarkable is that advertising is not viewed as something to skip, but is seen by 77 percent of viewers as part of the entertainment and therefore more watched and engaged with than any other television advertising during the year."

My thanks to Jim Joseph and Julia Carcamo for sharing their advertising, marketing, and branding insights on Twitter and here on my Blog – and for making Super Bowl 55 a fun marketing day!

Are you counting the days to Super Bowl 56, scheduled for February 6, 2022, at the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles? What are the odds that the Rams or Chargers will play host in their home stadium, like Tampa Bay did this year? Or, have you had enough expensive ad watching and would rather plan a visit to Walt Disney World instead?

Image Credit: Thanks to Tom Fishburne for use of his cartoon with this post. Tom is the Founder and CEO of Marketoon Studios, a content marketing studio that helps businesses reach their audiences with cartoons. Check out his work at and follow on Twitter @tomfishburne.


For more commentary on the Super Bowl’s ads, I recommend the following:

A Pandemic Super Bowl by Tim Calkins:

For all the Tweets from the #SuperBowlExp on Twitter from 2/7/2021, visit Twitter and search for the hashtag #SuperBowlExp.

2012 Super Bowl Ad Review featuring Julia Carcamo:

To read any of my previous Super Bowl ad recap posts, search this Blog using the term “super” to access all the complete links.

If you wonder if the Super Bowl ads are effective, read this commentary:

Does a Strong Super Bowl Ad Carry Over into the Year-Ahead? 

If you’d like to see the Kellogg School’s Super Bowl Ad Review: 

If you’d like to watch all the ads again, here’s a link:

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