The Super Bowl is a big deal in the US. Not just for the two NFL teams who take to the field to battle for the Vince Lombardi trophy, but also for the dozens of brands that have a unique opportunity to get their respective messages out to a captive audience of 110 million viewers - the largest one-time TV-viewing audience in the country.
This year, all the usual suspects were in attendance: Budweiser, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Doritos, numerous automotive brands and a smattering of technology.
So, what did they do with their 30-second, $3 million opportunity? Did they ignite their brand? Launch a new product? Seed a thought-provoking new idea? Or just run an ad?
I'll start with the cars because these were probably among the most successful. Volkswagen and its agency Deutsch did a wonderful job with two different but very on-brand spots.
The first one, for the new Passat, used a pint-sized Darth Vader in a sweet, simple story that felt just right for VW. The second one featured some very nice CG work to tease the new Beetle coming this autumn. Both executions were intelligent and entertaining, and felt perfectly in synch with this brand.
One of my personal favourites was the first two-minute commercial in Super Bowl history: the epic ad from Wieden & Kennedy Portland for Chrysler (or was it for Detroit?). Can one commercial make you feel differently about a car? An industry? Or even an entire city? Maybe. It was beautifully written and shot, wrapped up with a memorable tagline: "Imported from Detroit." Not only was it a good ad for Chrysler, it was a good ad for "advertising" and the impact our craft can have.
Away from the automobiles, some of my other favourite ads were the two Coca-Cola spots (again from Wieden & Kennedy Portland). The first followed in the footsteps of "happiness factory" with a beautifully executed animation spot about a fire-breathing dragon and a band of marauders threatening a peaceful Coke-drinking village. Happiness ensues.
The second was a simple, artful and eloquent story about two border guards in a remote unspecified location who literally redraw their national boundaries - and momentarily set aside their differences - to share the pleasure of Coke. "Happiness" is such a simple and open brief, but it's been executed flawlessly by Wieden & Kennedy over the past couple of years.
Next up, Bud Light, a familiar face when it comes to the Super Bowl. Once again, the brand demonstrated that it knows its audience and its role in this event, which is to entertain in a way that may be a bit sophomoric, but is also culturally insightful. "Product placement" and "hack job" nicely took social phenomena (product placement in movies, and home improvement shows) and turned them on their ear. The third spot "dog sitting" was funny but maybe not as insightful.
Then there are a few commercials that were certainly not among my favourites, but generated a huge amount of discussion when they hit the air. First, Audi. A bit of a disappointment from a brand with products that I admire. While it had some funny moments, it felt like Audi maybe lost sight of its brand in the bright lights of the Super Bowl. Its cars are truly innovative; its ad was a little middle-of-the-pack.
Next, there's Motorola and Anomaly's commercial for the Xoom tablet. In full disclosure, I do work on the brand that the guys at Anomaly are trying to take the piss out of but I'll try to put that aside for a moment. The brand's premise seems to be that Apple users are all mindless drones, enslaved by their white earbuds - and that Motorola and the Xoom will be their salvation. The problem I have with the spot is not in the execution but the premise itself. I'm not sure iPod and iPad users actually feel this way about these products. In fact, I'm pretty sure they love having all their music in their pockets, and the best way to experience the web, e-mail, photos, video and more than 350,000 apps at their fingertips (oops, I slipped into my day job there for a minute). But maybe that's just me.
Time will tell if Xoom can deliver on a bold promise.
Away from the ads, one other observation related to the Super Bowl is the phenomenon of social media and its ability tocreate buzz around the ads themselves. A number of this year's brands actually released their commercials days ahead of the game on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with quite a bit of success. Volkswagen's "the force" generated upwards of 13 million YouTube views before kick-off - and 13 million people seeking out a connection with your brand is a good thing.
Social media looks to be as big a part of the Super Bowl as Clydesdales, talking babies and monkeys (this year's monkey quota was taken up by Career Builders, to great success).
I'll conclude by embracing my guest critic role and being, well, a bit critical. Aside from a few standouts such as Coke, Chrysler, Bud Light and Volkswagen, there seemed to be a lack of memorable, iconic ideas. In this piece, I've mentioned just ten of the 61 commercials that aired on Super Bowl Sunday. Some of the others may have entertained for 30 seconds. But they didn't stand out from these stronger concepts, didn't feel like part of a larger brand position and, just like the other 364 days of the year, got lost in the clutter. And then there's the consumer-generated ads, such as those from Doritos, which hand over your brand to someone with no vested interest beyond their 15 minutes of fame. A dicey proposition, in my book.
That said, the Super Bowl remains a great opportunity for brands and their agencies. What you do with it is up to you.
Duncan Milner is the chief creative officer of TBWA\Media Arts Lab
To view the ads, visit campaignlive.co.uk.