Dozens of characters from different walks of life complained in a 30-second ad from the famous candy bar about being spied on by gadgets, guys riding scooters and babies being named after produce, among and lots of other of life’s little annoyances, and then joined forces to help calm a world they said was “out of sorts,” a condition that might only be solved by “feeding it Snickers.” The spot seemed to be a bizarre tribute to Coca-Cola’s landmark 1971 “Hilltop” commercial, in which singers from a wide range of background tell viewers how they’d “like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.”
Did it work?
The answer will have to be found in the sales results of companies like Snickers’ owner, Mars Wrigley, but Super Bowl viewers and the ad-agency executives who try to court them all appeared to notice a softer touch in this year’s ad game, after several years of doling out commercials with more overt commentary about how consumers should be feeling about lifestyle and politics.
“You do feel people have realized that the Super Bowl is fun. It’s a party,” says Shayne Millington, a global executive creative director at Interpublic Group’s McCann. “You are getting a lot of advertisers who are trying to be really creative and finding new ways to get these themes across, rather than using very heavy messaging.”
A dizzying array of big-spending advertisers offered up snacks, streaming video and Charmin, hoping that no matter how polarized Americans have become by the recent swirl of politics they’d all be in a good enough mood to agree they were in need of all the things being pitched on Fox between segments of a big Super Bowl LIV match between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DeRossi pitched Amazon’s Alexa. Verizon tapped Harrison Ford to do a voice-over that tied its telecommunications service to the efforts of rescue workers. And movie studios offered sneak peeks at everything from Marvel’s “Black Widow” to Warner Brothers’ coming “Wonder Woman” sequel.
“People want to be entertained,” says Christopher Owens, brand planning director at The Richards Group, an independent agency in Dallas. “If you are going to throw a wrench into that, there needs to be a really good case for doing that.”
To be sure, there were commercials with serious themes, including ads from the political campaigns of Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg and President Donald Trump, as well as a spot from the National Football League ad about a social-justice initiative. Concern among other Super Bowl advertisers about the effects of the campaign ads was high enough that Fox surrounded them with promos for its own shows in order to tamp down concerns about what being placed next to them might do to consumer recall and reception.
But in the end, those ads did not carry the night.
Ad experts and viewers seemed to appreciate the Snickers effort, as well as one from Hyundai that enlisted Chris Evans, John Krasinki and Rachel Dratch to put a Boston accent on a new automatic “smart park” feature. A Microsoft ad put a spotlight on Katie Sowers, the San Francisco 49ers staffer who is the first female coach in the NFL. And they enjoyed a spot from Jeep that employed Bill Murray and a groundhog in an effort that nodded to his 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.”
Madison Avenue was in many cases willing to let its collective hair down and have fun. Characters associated with one particular product for decades suddenly turned up in ads for others. Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean showed up at a funeral for Mr. Peanut, part of the Kraft Heinz food empire (Kool Aid and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, also part of the same company, also paid their respects). Chester Cheetah, long tied to Cheetos, made a cameo in a Super Bowl ad for Sabra hummus (both Cheetos’ owner Frito-Lay and Sabra are tied to PepsiCo).
Procter & Gamble pushed the envelope the most, luring both Bud Light’s Bud Knight and Gal Gadot, the star of Warner Brothers’ “Wonder Woman” movies into ads for Tide. In two different spots, the Knight kibbutzed with actor Charlie Day, who was fretting about a stain on his shirt, and in another, Warner got to whet the audience’s appetite for the “Wonder Woman” sequel, with Gadot in full character talking to Day about his soiled garment.
As is always the case, there were some clunkers. An ad from Porsche for a new electric model seemed to get lost in the pack. An ad from Google hit lots of sentimental notes, showing how an older man used Google to remember all the things he loved about his wife. But it also sparked debate about how Silicon Valley giants collect reams of personal data about users and then tap it to help them target consumers with pieces of advertising.
Owens, the ad executive, thought too many of the night’s advertisers were taking notes from similar playbooks, relying too heavily on “borrowed interest” from popular movies, celebrity appearances and other cultural touch points, rather than working harder to find an original theme.
Some observers were impressed by the sheer number of ads featuring female protagonists, including one from Procter & Gamble’s Olay that depicted Busy Philips and Lily Singh as astronauts and relied on Katie Couric to introduce them as part of a newscast.
There was at least one big surprise
Madison Avenue has struggled in recent Super Bowls to find the best tone. In some years, advertisers pressed hard on progressive notes, playing on an America roiled by the 2016 election. In 2018, for example, Ram Trucks used a snippet from a sermon by Martin Luther King to try and sell its vehicles. Such work comes as more of the nation’s biggest companies are working to attract an increasingly diverse consumer base that includes people from a multitude of nationalities and genders who are giving rise to new concepts about relationships and families.
There were obvious nods to these themes, including the appearance of the 49ers’ Sowers or DeGeneres and DeRossi. But they were presented without commentary, as if their participation in the event were a fait accompli.
In 2020, there is some consensus that many of them got it right, even if there was nothing as surprising this year as Apple’s famous “1984” commercial or even Bud Light’s eyebrow-raising tie-in from 2019 with HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that resulted in the death of its Bud Knight. That warrior was back in the Super Bowl line-up this year, trying to help Procter & Gamble enter the fray. Maybe someone will break new molds next year. In 2020, advertisers seemed content to simply keep viewers smiling.