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Super Bowl Review: Madison Avenue Filled Big Game With Small Ads

Madison Avenue brought a knife to a gun fight Sunday evening, loading the fiftieth Super Bowl with advertisements for the splintered crowds of the Internet and social media rather than tailoring them for TV’s biggest annual event.

Viewers were bombarded with commercials that were fast-paced and celebrity-laced, offered by Yum Brands’ Taco Bell, SquareSpace, PepsiCo’s Mtn Dew and even Advil, backed by the conservative pharmaceutical manufacturer, Pfizer. In general, the commercials were so frenetic they reminded one of those animated Japanese TV shows that give young children seizures.

There was an anthropomorphic creature that was part baby, part dog and part monkey, and a young outdoor aficionado who wanted to get to first base with a local rodent. Dollar Shave Club trotted out an ad that looked as if it were made for a dollar (it was crafted internally by the company’s CEO, who had a role in the spot). And there was even a series of dick jokes delivered by Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen on behalf of Anheuser Busch InBev, a new low from a company that has also given American TV-watchers those stately Clydesdales.

Did we mention the two separate commercials about bowel movements? One, an ad about opioid-induced constipation, appeared in the first half of the game. At least Valeant Pharmaceuticals had the good taste last year to wait until the third quarter before trotting out an ad for Jublia, a treatment for toenail fungus. People are eating, you know.

What was in short supply during the evening were commercials that viewers once expected from the Super Bowl: cinematic bits of video that make even the beer-drinkers in the back of the room stop and pay attention, and then deliver a convincing message about why the people watching ought to go out and spend on the product being advertised.

“The gold standard is a creative, clever approach that reinforces a key brand benefit, whether functional or emotional, at a deep level,” said Charles Taylor, a professor of marketing at Villanova University.  Maintaining that benchmark, however, has become difficult, as marketers work to get more bang for their $4.5 million to $5 million – the cost of 30 seconds of air time on CBS this year – with social-media previews that aim to stir the populace to tweet, post and ‘like.’

These teasers, Taylor argues, “grab attention, but really don’t do much to reinforce the brand’s unique selling proposition.”

The result? Anheuser Busch InBev used the Super Bowl to draw attention to its Shock Top brew with a commercial that worked much better as a streaming-video trailer, leaving many of the best bits between comic actor T.J. Miller and a talking orange “wedgehead” on YouTube. Taco Bell buried the introduction of a new product – the cheese-filled “quesalupa” – with references to drones, Tinder, aliens and more.

To be sure, some ads bucked the trend. Coca-Cola ran an eye-popping commercial featuring characters from Disney’s line of Marvel Universe films, showing the massive Hulk and the tiny Ant-Man sparring over a 7.5 ounce “mini’ can of soda. Audi ran a beautiful spot in which an old astronaut gets that rocket-ship feeling once again by taking a spin in one of the automaker’s vehicles. Toyota’s Prius won some notice by spinning a 90-second yarn about the “Prius 4,” a group of friends who draw worldwide attention by escaping from the law with their namesake vehicle.

Heinz, returning to the Super Bowl ad roster for the first time since 2014, seemed to have the recipe for a memorable entry. The condiment maker offered a panoramic view of a fleet of dogs clad in hot dog buns racing toward a family of Heinz dressings, all to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” The sight was intriguing, and the message – Heinz ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce helps dress up meals – was not hard to discern.

Madison Avenue relied heavily on celebrities for Super Bowl 50, hoping, perhaps, that an onslaught of famous faces would draw the attention of people in large groups eager to talk to their pals over wings and guacamole. Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer held forth in a politics-themed commercial for Bud Light (making ribald references to a “big caucus”); Christopher Walken appeared on behalf of Kia; Steven Tyler offered a few linguistic antics on behalf of Skittles; Anthony Hopkins, of all people, made a pitch for Intuit.

Advertisers “are looking at ways to extend their conversation. They want it to start before the game and to continue after the game, ” said Carol Goll, partner and head of global branded entertainment at ICM. “There is a lot more engagement, and with that comes different pieces of content that they can use across different channels, and not just in the game itself.”

As Madison Avenue splits its focus on commercials that can work on Twitter, YouTube and other venues, it seems to be averting its gaze a bit from TV. Take a fascinating effort by SquareSpace, which enlisted top comedians Key & Peele to host an online session this evening during which the pair created two new characters to comment on the ads and the Super Bowl broadcast. And yet, Squarespace’s TV commercial was a muddled affair.

Or consider Amazon’s wild commercial touting “Alexa,” the Amazon Echo personal helper that is the online retailer’s answer to Apple’s Siri. In a series of online “teasers,” Amazon had Alec Baldwin planning a party with a “snack stadium” along with football great Dan Marino. On Game Night, the ad showed the pair joined by Missy Elliott and Jason Schwartzman, unveiling a massive edifice jammed with snacks that they put together with minimal help from the device. Were the benefits of owning an Echo obscured by the wild scene? Will consumers see a need to own a gadget that is used to facilitate celebrity kookiness rather than a more quotidian need?

The answers are hard to determine. As more consumers turn to social media, advertisers are straining to get them to “pass along” content and create “chatter” and “buzz.” To accomplish that, they are making the ads weirder and stranger,packing them chock full of “beats” that might spur commentary. Check out tonight’s ad from Butterfinger, which sent a guy on a bull hurtling out of a plane while chewing on the candy, all in an effort to get consumers to think of the chocolate as “bolder than bold.” But the man doesn’t seem to be enjoying his snack, and only gnaws on it as a way of getting through his seemingly inhuman enterprise.

In another era, the wonder kids of Madison Avenue crafted ads that made us ponder their message as well as their scenario – and by doing so, made us remember the commercials for years to come. We still talk about Apple’s famous “1984” commercial or Chrysler’s “Halftime In America” spot featuring Clint Eastwood. We likely won’t “chat” about Butterfinger or Amazon or two more handfuls of this evening’s commercial for more than 48 hours.

There’s no question consumer attention is split between TV screens and tablets, TV shows and video streams, and no one has really hit upon a technique that guarantees any video commercial will be seen and absorbed. Until advertisers return to crafting ads that get people to think instead of prodding them to tweet, the Super Bowl will continue to be overrun with 30-second bits of frenetic hype that make us want to scream rather than buy.

Let’s be honest. Tonight’s game had more than two ads centered on excrement.

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