The future is here. And it invaded the nation’s most-watched present.
Madison Avenue ladled out visions of days to come in 30- and 60-second increments Sunday night, offering hundreds of millions of Americans watching Super Bowl LIII on CBS a colorful glance of things once meant to arrive in decades that are instead manifesting themselves in the here and now. While there were plenty of celebrity cameos and doses of humor to wash it all down, Super Bowl fans no doubt walked away from the event realizing society is in the midst of rapid transformation.
“There is a little bit of this dystopian theme that we are seeing,” said Ed Cotton, chief strategy officer at the ad agency BSSP.
The commercial breaks on CBS Sunday night were filled with visions of intelligent robots and electric cars; nods to new eating habits; tantalizing peeks at streaming video; and reminders of the new power of women.
Viewers saw no fewer than four kinds of artificial intelligence machines striving to become more human, thanks to ads from Pringles, TurboTax, Michelob and Sprint. They witnessed four different commercials from T-Mobile depicting some of our most common conversations — all taking place via smartphone text. Big media companies eager to get consumers to subscribe to new streaming services hawked new offerings soon to be binged on Hulu, Amazon, HBO, Netflix and CBS’ “All Access” subscription service.
Whether it was emphasized openly or not, gender equality was part of the conversation. Each commercial in the first ad break of the game featured women in lead roles. Two mermaids held forth for Anheuser-Busch’s new Bon + Viv, a “spiked” seltzer. Actress Christina Applegate dominated a new commercial for Mars’ M&Ms while Hulu showed a preview of the next cycle of “Handmaid’s Tale,” the drama about women living in servitude. And dating app Bumble let loose with a spot featuring tennis champ Serena Williams, who said, “Women, the ball is in your court.”
Even Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of the world’s most traditional advertisers, got in on the game, nodding in one fourth-quarter spot to the power of wind-generated energy (complete with the eyebrow-raising use of Bob Dylan’s venerated protest song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”).
The Super Bowl has long been a venue in which marketers unleash new products and services, like the latest model of a car or an offer for a free breakfast at Denny’s. But digital technology is changing life so quickly in the late twenty-teens that the Big Game has fast transformed itself into a showcase for all kinds of shifts in society.
Advertisers tried to mask any anxiety by using surprise and jokes. A guy dreaming of the new Audi almost chokes on a cashew. A voice device yearns to taste new Pringles combinations and bemoans that it has “no mouth to taste with, no soul to feel with,” until one guy eating chips tells it to play “Funkytown,” the 1980 single from Lipps Inc.
“I feel like it’s a return to classic advertising — a lot of big celebrities, a lot of gags,” said Conner Huber, chief strategic officer at the New York office of ad agency McGarryBowen. “You are seeing a return to product features, not a lot of politics, not a lot of serious topics.”
So sure, eagle-eyed viewers might have noticed a resourceful Mr. Peanut racing to prevent baseball star Alex Rodriguez from having to eat kale chips – a new snacking competitor in these days of consumers paying more attention to what they eat. But the sight of Charlie Sheen making a cameo in the piece might have kept them from thinking too much about it. And ad-watchers may have noticed the mighty Anheuser-Busch and stalwart Pepsi each taking a poke at longtime competitors like Miller, Coors and Coca-Cola. But their reliance on silliness and fun kept the topic from cresting on social media. Even so, their willingness to highlight their rivals on the world’s biggest media stage struck some as risky.
The focus on technology came as some longtime advertisers from other categories bowed out of the event. Coca-Cola and Fiat Chrysler, both of which have purchased multiple Super Bowl ads each year for several cycles, opted to stay on the sidelines in 2019, Coke ran an ad in pre-game coverage while Fiat Chrysler moved to social and digital. And several movie studios put trailers on the air before and after game, when commercials cost significantly less. Walt Disney book-ended the main event, running a preview of its new “Avengers” installment in pre-game inventory and an ad for “Toy Story 4” in a post-game break.Viacom’s Paramount kept to the pre-game as well.
Many viewers and ad-agency executives were taken aback by Anheuser’s decision to join with AT&T’s HBO in a 60-second spot that started off hawking Bud Light but then turned dark, with characters from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” doing away with the Bud Knight in dark fashion. “I think the Super Bowl is becoming an environment where a lot of studios and distributors are launching new things, and they are competing with the movies,” said Matt Reinhard, chief creative officer of Reinhard, O’Keefe and Paul. “I think it played well.”
Some ads were serious, Google offered a pair aimed at stirring emotions. Microsoft emphasized the interesting lives of kids overcoming various setbacks. And Toyota stirred viewers with a focus on Antoinette “Toni” Harris, a 22-year-old Detroit woman who is the first female to be offered a college football scholarship to play on a regular defensive team.
“I know what the hearts of those brands are in the right place but I’m not sure whether the audience is along for the ride at a time when they are probably three beers in,” said Cotton, the ad executive.
Madison Avenue served up strong stuff on Sunday night, but covered it up with sugary elements. By the time Super Bowl viewers digest all the advances they’ve seen, it may be too late to get ahead of them.