All you need to know about Super Bowl LI

Last Sunday was the biggest advertising moment of the year in the US. Kate Magee brings us the lowdown on the event.

All you need to know about Super Bowl LI

Richard Brim, executive creative director, Adam & Eve/DDBThe creative view

Richard Brim, executive creative director, Adam & Eve/DDB

Just on hearing the word "Christmas", I get a little bit of sick in my mouth, it keeps me up at night and gives me a dicky tummy.

It’s the only time that real people – aka my mum – actually give a flying fuck about what we do, and that scares me rigid.

They wait for the ads, they have an opinion on which ones they prefer and, most importantly, they talk about them – a lot. And, by a lot, I mean it makes the news, spoofs are made and people refer to the characters in the ads by their first names, Frozen-stylee.

All this noise, aside from being ridiculous, makes agencies try harder and makes brands think of cleverer and more interesting ways to outsmart the competition as everyone wants to "win" Christmas.

Now take this slightly mental situation and supersize it with extra cheese and a salted-caramel tofu shake, and you get the Super Bowl.

This year, I watched this circus unfold from the other side of the pond – and it is nuts. People really care about the commercials. The Wall Street Journal and USA Today run polls and the ads almost eclipse the big game itself.

Everyone you meet asks if you have a "Bowler" and then there is a pause as they hope you don’t turn around and say, "Yeah, yeah, we did the Laxileve spot with Hulk Hogan and Lassie."

The price of a spot is in excess of $5m and everyone wants to be crowned the king/queen of the Super Bowl. Every year, celebs the world over gird their loins in anticipation of that million-dollar phone call, agencies frantically think about what political statement they can make with weedkiller and brands that can’t afford to join the party desperately try to find ways to crash it.

And this year is no different. First out of the celebrity trap, we have Melissa McCarthy saving the world for Kia. It’s OK. I think it suffers a little from the fact that she dropped her Sean Spicer Saturday Night Live sketch that is properly funny the day before.

McCarthy was quickly followed by Snoop, Timberlake, Walken, Brady, Malkovich, Hamm, Schwarzeneggar, Kerr, Dumpty, James, Freeman, Statham and the little fella Bieber. That’s a lot of money spent on riders and executive trailers and, if I’m honest, I think only the Malkovich one really rose to the top.

In the whole "we’re not going to get involved in this shit show" camp, Heinz thought that, instead of making an all-singing, all-dancing ad, it would give 42,000 members of staff the day off. They then PR-ed the fuck out of it – so while I like the sentiment, I just question the motive.

Snickers ran its ad live and it was really interesting. We made our first one for Skittles and the reaction in the bar I was watching it in was good – people laughed, they seemed to like it. But, predictably, the main theme was brands making a stand against the orange-faced maniac with out-offocus hair and everything he stands for, and they did it well.

Audi tackled gender equality, Budweiser spoke of immigration along with Airbnb, Coca-Cola and a little-known building-supplies brand called 84 Lumber. They felt right, and it’s a brave marketer who signs that work off.

So what you cannot knock is the ambition of all the work. Some pulled it off, some didn’t – but the whole spectacle felt fun and relevant, and that surely is what it’s all about.

The trend

Brand playing politics

One major theme this year was the number of ads that – sometimes unwittingly – strayed into politics. Budweiser accidentally got involved after releasing its Super Bowl ad, which appears to comment on immigration, in the same week Donald Trump banned entry to the US for people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The spot showed the story of Budweiser’s founder – a German immigrant who moved to the US and faced xenophobia before finally achieving his dreams. Budweiser claims the film was never meant to be political but it generated much debate in the run-up to the Super Bowl.

Of course, making a political stand can be tempting for marketers looking for an easy way to cut through the clutter. As GoDaddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman said: "There’s nothing more polarising than politics right now, but there are times when controversy overrides the real message.

"We considered adding a nod to tweets from @realDonaldTrump. His tweets make news just about every day, but we didn’t do it for a number of reasons. Mostly, we didn’t want to add to what is an already politically charged, divisive climate."

Others did choose to enter the political fray. Building-materials supplier and first-time Super Bowl advertiser 84 Lumber was one such brand, but it was forced to change its recruitment ad, which showed a mother and daughter being blocked from entering the US because of a wall.

The company ended up deleting scenes of the wall and, instead, pointed viewers to its website to watch the film’s ending.

Meanwhile, Audi used its spot to argue for equal pay. "Daughter" focused on a father’s anxiety about raising a girl in a world that favours men, particularly when it comes to salaries. "Do I tell her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma?" the voiceover asks.

The ad, by Venables Bell & Partners, ends with the message: "Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work."

It provoked fierce debate online even before it was shown during the Super Bowl. Marketers will be hoping these politically charged ads will be more memorable than a fluffy animal or a celebrity appearance.

Jerry Daykin, digital partner, CaratThe social media challenge

Jerry Daykin, digital partner, Carat

The Super Bowl has long been the pinnacle of US advertising, but the rise of social media put it on the radar of marketers worldwide.

Hundreds of brands look for a touchdown like Oreo’s 2013 "dunk in the dark" tweet – the most famous example of real-time marketing. The near-midnight kick-off likely put most UK-based brands off, but there are still valuable lessons to learn.

Jumping on key moments such as the Super Bowl has become a popular tactic for brands, with social teams hoping to build some relevance or achieve an outright viral hit. It’s telling, however, that many of the biggest advertisers have long since abandoned these approaches.

While occasional social posts have certainly gained wider virality, the reality for most brands is quite the opposite. Tweeting alongside the Super Bowl means pushing out content at the busiest time imaginable, and it’s not surprising that most brands get lost in the noise.

There were 27.6 million tweets sent during the 2017 event, from warm-up through to post-game. The only brands that can truly bubble to the top of the conversation are those that have committed paid-media budgets to guarantee the posts get seen – far too much great content disappears without a trace in the fast-moving feed.

Tweeting alongside the Super Bowl means pushing out content at the busiest time imaginable.

As for building relevance, it remains a very forced match in most cases. Unless your brand has some direct connection with the event or a very strong tone of voice, your messaging is likely to get lost in the moment.

Simple data insight and media targeting can allow you to be relevant to a mass audience in the exact moments that matter most throughout the year without the need to build false associations or limit yourself to one day.

There may be good commercial motivations to activate around big events – but it really is a case of go hard or go home.

The marketer's view

Mars brands Snickers and Skittles were back in the Super Bowl this year.

Chief marketing and customer officer Andrew Clarke says, "Interest in the advertising at the Super Bowl is unmatched. Increasingly, it’s before, during and after the event as well."

The Super Bowl also forces brands to raise their creative bar. "It inspires some tough conversations with our agency partners. We have to have outstanding creative that really delivers, that gets talked about, that stands out. That’s a tough ask," Clarke adds.

A TV ad is no longer enough. "We pre-released our Super Bowl TV commercial but there’s much more to our campaign, including digital advertising and post-game social engagements,"

GoDaddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman says. "Cutting through the clutter gets more challenging every year."