This week our Friday Forecast appears on Tuesday so that we can dive into the water cooler talk du jour: the annual battle for supremacy known as the Super Bowl and its attendant commercial advertising.
Politics took center stage this year, yet amid our national disunity, the focus was on themes of inclusion, diversity, and commonality. These motifs were delivered with a range of approaches that varied from broad humor to thought provoking poignancy. From immigration to pot legalization, gender politics to religious differences, the full gamut of our political zeitgeist was on display. And yet for all of it, nothing was overtly controversial, mirroring halftime entertainer Lady Gaga’s decision to play it down the middle. While some might consider the approach largely bland or uninspired, we would argue that it was just the kind of feel good balm this country needed as it took a break from ceaseless infighting to gather together and applaud what has become the quintessential American unofficial holiday and celebration (smarting Falcon fans aside).
According to USA Today’s Annual Super Bowl Ad Meter, this year’s most highly ranked spot was Kia’s Hero’s Journey, featuring eco-warrior Melissa McCarthy caught in a series of efforts to save the planet gone hopelessly haywire. McCarthy, coming straight off of her red hot and viral impersonation of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live, was the perfect foil for what was essentially a pro-environmental message delivered with such wacky, over-the-top humor that it was a delight to watch, regardless of your stance on global warming. In fact, we suspect the most valuable lesson here for future advertisers is that the entire scenario was so broad that it no doubt got the gold medal for shutting down the din at your average Super Bowl party so that people could actually hear the commercial! The car being featured – a crossover called the Niro – was hardly visible, another theme of this year’s commercials, especially in the automotive category. For example, Audi’s Daughter spot featuring a tween soapbox derby driver beating the boys at their own game while her father speculated about her chances for equal pay, extolled a pro-feminist message and ranked 3rd. And yet the car brand and its product was only shown for a split second before a graphic announced: “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.”
Meanwhile, a mashup of celebrities – particularly of the quirky or cult kind –was another consistent theme and the key component in Honda’s Yearbook spot which took the silver medal among viewers who voted in USA Today’s poll. The Likes of Amy Adams, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Steve Carell animated to life from their awkward and nerdy yearbook photos to extol the merits of perseverance and self-determination. In spot after spot, whether it was Martha Stewart paired with Snoop Dogg in a wink-wink nod to the virtues of marijuana featured in T-Mobile’s #BagofLimited (ranked 27th) or Christopher Walken juxtaposed with – oh, my gosh, it’s Justin Timberlake! in Bai’s Jentleman, which ranked 12th, the famous seem to have elbowed aside puppies and orangutans for the time being.
The real question for advertisers is whether or not this tactic of “borrowed interest” – that is, using any means necessary no matter how tangential to the product being pitched – is effective. In poll after poll, the most random devices often result in viewers recalling the gag, but not the brand being advertised. With a 30 second Super Bowl spot now costing a reported $5 million, it’s a gamble worthy of careful consideration. Perhaps more effective is when the humor is directly tied to the product benefit as in Mr. Clean’s Cleaner of Your Dreams -- ranked 6th -- where the buff and bald icon tapped into the universality of kitchen counter fantasies – in this case the pro-equality notion that our heroine’s slovenly husband need to get off his lazy duff and do his share of the housework.
Themes of unity were also pervasive. From the NFL’s Inside These Lines, ranked 10th, which espoused “Inside these lines we don’t have to come from the same place to help each other reach the same destination” to Airbnb’s 16th ranked We Accept, which used a series of diverse faces and simple graphics to express a message of acceptance, our common human condition was on display everywhere. The most frankly political advertisement from 84 Lumber, entitled The Journey Begins, featured a Latino mother and daughter traversing road and rail, and field and stream, presumably in a quest to cross the border. The Fox network, which deemed the spot too controversial, made the advertiser edit it, leaving audiences left hanging to go online to “See the conclusion at Journey84.com”. A stampede of viewers apparently did as they proceeded to crash their server. In the online finish to the spot – which ranked 29th -- the duo reaches an impregnable border wall which, it turns out, has been outfitted with a giant gate presumably courtesy of the advertiser who intones, “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”
Photo credit: Hyundai Motor America
The biggest category losers were mobile games and movie and TV series’ trailers as last place positions 63-66 were all occupied by adverts for the likes of World of Tanks, Mobile Strike and Envoy. To be fair, the free-to-pay mobile gaming model audience may not be an avid voting block on the Ad Meter platform. Meanwhile, eight of the bottom half of the 66 advertisers were for upcoming feature film fare or TV shows including Baywatch (#34) to the lowest-in-the-group The Handmaid’s Tale (#61), a new series from Hulu. Perhaps the best explanation is that audiences want to be surprised and delighted – and see something that they haven’t seen before – and in some cases, these commercials have already been on the air. On that front, Hyundai of America’s Operation Better delivered. Although not technically ranked in the derby, given it was broadcast after the game ended, it is generating significant buzz. As the overtime spectacle ended, viewers were transported to a U.S. military base in Zagan, Poland. Three soldiers had been selected to sit in a pod surrounded by a projection of the game, giving the illusion that they were there in the stadium. Cameras panned to reveal the G.I.’s loved ones present live in the stadium as if they were beside them in a powerful statement of sacrifice and the sweet recognition that is love. Not a single car was displayed; only the tag line: “Better Drives Us. Hyundai.” It might seem a bit crazy for a South Korean automaker to embrace patriotism, but then that seemed to be the point of much of this year’s Super Bowl advertising amid Trump’s America: that there is far more that unites us, than divides us. Now, back to your regularly scheduled rancor.
Introduction Photo credit: Kia USA
Colleen Ferrier is a seasoned direct marketing expert who specializes in guiding integrated direct-to-consumer campaigns with an acute focus on ROI. Her broad experience has included management oversight of marketing, operations, media, and international distribution. The campaigns she has been instrumental in helping lead to success across her 15+ year career include Pillow Pets, Little Giant Ladder, Dream Lites, and Stompeez. Ferrier has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Augusta University, Georgia.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO/DoubleFlex. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with an Emphasis in Sales and Marketing from Marylhurst University.