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Super Bowl Ad Review: Why Madison Avenue Chose Pop Over Politics

Super Bowl ads come in many varieties. Some are spicy. Some are salty. This year, many were just sweet.

Most of the advertisers in Super Bowl LII veered away from the politically-minded or socially-conscious commercials for which the event has been known in recent years, cowed by an audience all too eager to vent dissatisfaction on social media and, perhaps, suffering from cultural ennui as the result of a frenzied news cycle that has left the nation polarized and weary of considering new controversies and issues.

“I think people are relaxing and want some good fun,” said Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Bud Light, one of the event’s biggest and most prominent sponsors. “To add to that enjoyment is critical.” Bud Light ran a series of humorous spots from the independent agency Wieden + Kennedy that played up a “Bud Knight” and riffed on “Game of Thrones.” Its ad phrase “Dilly Dilly” played a prominent role.

“You want to be entertaining. You want to have a good time,” said Goeler. And, no doubt, marketers wanted to connect with a massive audience watching the Philadelphia Eagles triumph over the New England Patriots 41 to 33 – along with the commercials that broadcaster NBC was trying to sell for more than $5 million per 30-second increment.

Viewers were handed previews of the coming “Han Solo” movie, the latest piece of Disney’s “Star Wars” franchise; a fake-out commercial from Tourism Australia that made people think they were watching a preview of a “Crocodile Dundee” revival that turned out to be a pitch for a trip Down Under; and a duel between actors Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman that helped sell an unusual pairing of spicy Doritos and cool Mountain Dew.

“I’m not sure you’re going to see any bikini-clad women, and I don’t think you’re going to see too many politically charged things,” said Rob Reilly, global creative chairman at Interpublic Group’s McCann WorldGroup, which had an ad for Verizon on the ad roster. “I think the country has had enough.”

This year’s pivot wasn’t all about politics. The ad roster was jam-packed with offerings from not only movie studios – always a strong category – but other sorts of entertainment purveyors with emerging power. In addition to the preview for “Solo,” viewers saw a take on Paramount’s latest “Mission: Impossible” film; a look at a new “Jack Ryan” series from Amazon; a snippet of a new original series, “Castle Rock,” from Hulu; and a peek at the new “Avengers” movie from Disney’s Marvel. Even Time Warner’s HBO, which has historically had issues snaring ad placement on TV, got in on the act, with a trailer for the second season of its series, “Westworld.” Meanwhile, Netflix made a new “Cloverfield” movie from J.J. Abrams available on its subscription service immediately after the game.

If that wasn’t enough, two car companies linked their ads to the movies: Lexus played up “Black Panther” while Jeep tapped actor Jeff Goldblum to give a nod to Universal’s next “Jurassic World” release. And an ad for Universal’s “Skyscraper” had star Dwayne Johnson urge viewers to check him out on a broadcast of Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” slate for late in the evening.

“There’s so much entertainment being promoted that it’s kind of thrown down a challenge to the ad industry” to be as fun and interesting to watch, said Ed Cotton, chief strategy officer at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, an independent ad agency. Indeed, some advertisers used their commercial time to tell a longer story: Procter & Gamble’s Tide won admiration from audiences and ad executives for showing up again and again during the game with ads that could have been commercials for cars, beer – even Old Spice, a deodorant also made by the parent company. The effect was fun and the ads were smarter than the usual fare. “If you are going to buy multiple spots, make them work together,” said Susan Credle, chief creative officer of Interpublic Group’s FCB Global.

The Big Game was also able to avoid a lot of controversy because of the caliber of its sponsor lineup. Ever since the dot-com boom at the turn of the century, the Super Bowl has played a host to innumerable rookies and upstarts with lots of money to spend but little savvy about how to portray themselves on TV. From Pets.com to SalesGenie.com to 84 Lumber, the Super Bowl has served as a home to ads that often look rickety and are rough around more than the edges. Twelve “rookies” took part in last year’s Super Bowl LI, according to data from Kantar, compared with 10 in 2016 and 11 in 2015.

Many of these upstarts have used upset to gain attention. When web-services company GoDaddy.com joined the game in 2005, it caused controversy. When 84 Lumber took part last year, it added more fire to a debate about immigration taking place in the early days of the Trump presidency. In 2018, however, most of the sponsors were experienced at the art of TV commercials. One rookie, Monster Products, enlisted the help of an internal NBC agency to help create its spot. NBC Sports said eight to ten sponsors were freshman advertisers or returned to the event after a long absence (Diet Coke was among them).

To be sure, Super Bowl LII still had room for controversy. An ad from Fiat Chrysler’s Ram Trucks using a speech from Martin Luther King struck a wrong note with some viewers. The spot, which aired in the second quarter, used a long snippet of Dr. King giving one of his final sermons, known as “The Drum Major Instinct,” which turned 50 years old on Super Bowl Sunday. In it, the civil-rights leader told listeners that in order to serve, “you only need a heart full of grace. Soul generated by love.” He also says: “You don’t have to know about Pluto and Aristotle to serve.” The Ram ad ended with an on-screen slogan: “Built to Serve.”

Some ad executives felt the spot crossed a line. “Martin Luther King is probably a little too far,” said Cotton. “It maybe is some kind of sacred ground.”

Fiat Chrysler said it was “honored to have the privilege of working with the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr. to celebrate those words during the largest TV viewing event annually. We worked closely with the representatives of the Martin Luther King Jr. estate to receive the necessary approvals and estate representatives were a very important part of the creative process every step of the way.” The company has a history of raising eyebrows in the Super Bowl. In 2014, it trotted out Bob Dylan as a commercial spokesman.

Other ads that proved memorable to audiences included a tough-to-execute 60-second spot from PepsiCo that promoted both a new lemon-lime variant of Mountain Dew and a new spicy flavored version of Doritos. Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage squared off in a spot that was colorful and full of music and surprising raps. “That’s a tough order and sort of a challenge, but they found a clever way to do it,” said Cotton. Bill Hader held forth in a raucous ad for Kellogg’s Pringles. Coca-Cola showed off a cute spot for Diet Coke and issued a call for diversity for its flagship brand Coca-Cola. Amazon ran a 90-second spot in the fourth quarter that had various celebrities fill in for a missing Alexa.

Also missing from the lineup were the type of ads that used to be integral to the Super Bowl. As good-natured as the Sunday evening lineup was, many of the commercials proved more adept at making audiences laugh than at prodding them to think. The best ads of this long-running event have seized the imagination, like Apple’s venerable “1984” commercial, or, more recently, an ad from Chrysler featuring Clint Eastwood urging America to get back on its feet after a crippling recession. This year’s Super Bowl gave Americans a respite from an endless to-and-fro over issues ranging from immigration to multiculturalism to the economy. But it also left them without anything they will remember a decade from now.

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