Every year, thousands of column inches are wasted by countless media outlets expressing incredulity at the fact that brands spend upwards of $4.5 million on a 30-second slot in the Super Bowl. They do this without a hint of irony, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their stories are the reason brands spend the money.
For better or for worse, if you advertise in the big game, you get talked about. People see your ad. They pass your ad around. They watch it over and over. And they do it all voluntarily. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Super Bowl work is good. In fact, great work is typically the exception to the rule. The three-plus hours of football are usually dotted with lowest-common-denominator fare. But when you’re trying to entertain a captive audience of 100 million drunk people, there’s a bit of dumbing down necessary. However, what Super Bowl ads lack in quality, they more than make up for with enthusiasm. They’re the cheerleaders of our industry. They’re no Pina Bausch, but they can do a mean backflip. Which is why this year’s fare gave cause for concern.
The worrying trend I witnessed in 2015 was a dearth of brands trading in the big, dumb entertainment space. Not a lot of splashy showpieces that tried to surprise and delight. A lot more failed attempts at poignancy. Out of the 80 or so ads on show, these were my favourites.
‘The Brady Bunch’ by BBDO New York
This gets points for refreshing a pre-existing campaign in a fun and surprising way. I remember the first "you’re not you when you’re hungry" spot airing on the Super Bowl years ago. To be able to take a tried, tested and true formula and create a new execution that both entertains and gets the message across is no small feat.
Here, we have screen thug Danny Trejo and a hefty bit of CGI as he’s integrated into an episode of The Brady Bunch, playing the role of the eldest daughter. Mid-tantrum, the Brady parents make him eat a Snickers bar. Hunger issues dealt with, Marcia goes back to being her old sweet self – but not before we get a bonus cameo of Steve Buscemi freaking out in the role of Jan.
It works because it takes characters whose behaviours we’re all familiar with and subverts them in a playful fashion. That said, the retro feel probably isn’t winning any points with millennials – the hot new demographic!
‘Angry Neeson’ by Barton F Graf 9000
This was a treat. Unless my intel is wrong, it wasn’t leaked before the game. It’s amazing what an impact that has these days. Seeing something fresh along with every other American rather than geeking out on pre-game spoilers days in advance was a refreshing change.
The ad began like so many other video-game commercials do – with a bit of rolling footage. Ultimately forgettable unless you’re the target. But then the rug pull comes and it’s delightful.
Liam Neeson is playing the game we’ve been watching and he’s pissed that he lost. He wants revenge. Then, halfway through his tirade, he’s interrupted by a barista calling out his food order. And the barista gets his name wrong. We’ve all been there – victims of bad handwriting on the side of a coffee cup – and I’m shocked this insight hasn’t been used on screen for comedic effect before. The double rug pull lands brilliantly. Two laughs in one commercial. What a treat!
‘#LikeAGirl’ by Leo Burnett
When I heard Always would be making an appearance, I felt a rage boiling inside me. How dare anyone leverage this opportunity famed for breaking fresh content by using old assets. Then, mid-way through the broadcast, it came on and my heart melted.
It sends a profound message about how we marginalise girls before they’ve even had the opportunity to grow into strong, confident women. By showing people characterising those who do something poorly as being "like a girl", the ad demonstrates how seemingly harmless put-downs can do a lot of harm. I also think I preferred it in its new 60-second format over the slightly indulgent three-minute web film. It felt sharp and observational rather than like a lesson in gender politics brought to you by Always.
Avocados from Mexico
‘First draft ever’ by GSD&M
Every Super Bowl seems to have one ad that doesn’t garner much attention but wins my heart because it’s just so well-done. This year, it’s Avocados from Mexico.
It’s a simple, silly idea – we witness the first-ever draft, where countries pick stuff they get ownership over. It’s all very random. In the end, Mexico chooses avocados. That’s it. A pure awareness message. But it’s executed so joyfully and with such a great performance at its centre that it really cut through the clutter. It’s worth checking out the 60-second ad. The 30-second version felt a little rushed.
‘Positive feelings’ by Fallon
On an event as big as the Super Bowl, you have to reward bravery. Loctite spent a lot of money on a "Hey, look at me!" ad that was wilfully wacky in every way. Sticking to the strength of its convictions and staying weird until the end turned what could’ve been a hot mess into something memorable. Anyway, Loctite is glue. There’s probably not a lot of ways to say something interesting about glue. Gathering a bunch of oddballs from central casting and having them dance it out in a musical video from hell seemed like an effective use of time.
‘All powerless’ by Deutsch Los Angeles
Mophie took the elegant and sophisticated route, choosing to tell the story of the Rapture through a collection of artfully composed shots. Only all is not what it seems. By the spot’s end, we discover the cause for the end of days: a drained mobile-phone battery. More specifically, God’s drained mobile-phone battery.
I had to watch it twice because I missed the end title on my first viewing, and that line does a lot of heavy lifting, but that’s a minor criticism of an otherwise well-executed spot. Again, though, the 60-second version is far more rewarding. If a brand’s going to splash out on media, you might as well go for the deluxe option. Failing that, the film you make should be in its best form for whatever time length you buy.
‘Because burrito!’ by Barton F Graf 9000
I’m willing to give this (another offender in the "already aired on TV months ago" camp) a free pass because I like watching it so damn much.
The premise is simple: a burrito hurtles through the air and beats the shit out of people for ordering food over the phone. The real magic here is in the voiceover, which takes the word "because" and stretches it out for the bulk of the ad’s 30 seconds. There’s no reason this should work, which is why it makes it all the more delightful that it does.
Going online after the game, I read a lot of criticism that stacked up with what I was thinking about this year’s ads. There were fewer highs, less razzle-dazzle and a more serious tone in general. Super Downer 2015. Perhaps this is because brands and agencies are spending a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what angle to take; worrying too much about what every other advertiser is going to do rather than just focusing on what America wants to see.
There was a time when counterprogramming was the exception to the rule. Google’s "Parisian love" and Chrysler’s "imported from Detroit" stood out because they bucked a trend. Now, everyone’s trying to cut through by making you feel something. If we continue to please ourselves rather than the typical football fan, we’re at risk of consumers switching off. They won’t talk about us. They won’t pass our ads around. They won’t watch them over and over. And we’ll lose the one day that Americans invite us into their homes and treat our profession with reverence rather than disdain. I didn’t see a single actor get hit in the testicles this year and there’s something very, very wrong with that.
David Kolbusz is the executive creative director at Wieden & Kennedy New York