When it came to this year’s Super Bowl, Madison Avenue appeared to have hard marching orders: “Insert celebrity here,” Variety writes.
Ben Affleck, Bradley Cooper, Will Ferrell and Anna Faris were among the dozens of A-listers who showed up to hawk Pepsi Zero Sugar, T-Mobile, General Motors and Avocados From Mexico, among other items, in Fox’s telecast of Super Bowl LVII on Sunday. The allure of celebrity was so powerful this year that Mars Inc. benched its famous M&Ms spokes-candies in favor of a cartoonish ad led by Maya Rudolph (the animated favorites actually returned, but not until a post-game ad slot). Famous faces even showed up for serious items such as Dexcom, a glucose monitoring system for diabetics that enlisted Nick Jonas.
“This year, we just wanted to be entertained. We want to forget things,” says Tim Curtis, a partner at WME who oversees celebrity endorsements. After an era during which consumers have grappled with everything from a nation’s polarized politics to a global pandemic, he adds, people simply want “to get back to the business of being entertained by our favorite personalities.”
Not everyone stuck to the formula. The Farmer’s Dog, a first-time advertiser in the Big Game, won notice for a 60-second ad that tugged at the heartstrings and told the story of a dog and a young girl who grow up together through adolescence and into adulthood. The ad took some of the wind from a spot from Amazon that used similar themes but aired much later in the game. Molson Coors, back in the Super Bowl after a three-decade-plus blockade by rival Anheuser-Busch InBev, crammed multiple beers into a single spot and didn’t have time to highlight big names. Auto giant Stellantis ran ads that used animals and a spoof of pharmaceutical commercials. Kia won notice for a spot about a dad trying to get his baby a suitable pacifier despite his quest getting viral attention. And the NFL surprised with a clever ploy that made viewers think they were watching a live interview between Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews and flag football great Diana Flores.
And yet, the parade of famous faces, which also included Steve Martin, John Travolta and Pete Davidson, proved overwhelming. “Some of the Super Bowl advertisers’ approach has become a little bit predictable,” says Michelle St. Jacques, chief marketing officer of Molson Coors. “We wanted to make sure we broke that mold.”
Humor and celebrity cameos have long been a staple of Super Bowl ad work, but the best work of the event often makes jaws drop or gives viewers something bigger or more complex to discuss. The exemplar of the genre remains Apple’s famous “1984” ad in which a runner trying to escape pursuit in some dystopian society, hurls a sledgehammer at a bloviating orator talking via a big screen about the importance of maintaining unified thought and vision. The crowd is awakened by the scene, which gave people more to think about than just buying a home computer.
“I think I just wanted to see more,” says Kai Deveraux Lawson, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Dentsu Creative. “A lot of commercials are really leaning on the celebrities’ to carry the comedy and not really speaking to what’s happening in the current zeitgeist.”
There’s nothing wrong with Steve Martin, Bryan Cranston or Alicia Silverstone, all of whom were spotted Sunday evening. But the long line of movie and TV talent began to wear. And many of the spots became reliant on the celebrity to connect to consumers rather than a strong message about product differentiation. “It just seemed like the onus is on the talent inside the ad,” says Simon Bruyn, executive creative director for Mother. “It seems like a lot of brands feel like they need to make a flash play. It feels like we’ve got this moment, who can we put into the ad to kind of get flash and pizazz for it?”
In many cases, advertisers teamed up to create hybrid commercials that offered multiple messages. Consider the one-two punch of a Michelob ad and a subsequent spot for General Motors, both of which contained promotional nods to Netflix. Whether or not Fox intended, the network gave Netflix dominance over a commercial pod during a Super Bowl that also contained pitches for rival streamers like NBCUniversal’s Peacock and Paramount Global’s Paramount+—not to mention an assortment of clever promos for Fox’s ad-supported streaming hub Tubi.
There were also some stunts. A live commercial from FanDuel featured retired player Rob Gronkowski trying to kick a field goal to help gamblers win part of a $10 million pot. He missed, but FanDuel said it would pay out anyway.
More marketers are dabbling in “gamification” of their commercials, says Greg Hahn, co founder and chief creative officer of Mischief, the agency that crafted the promos for Tubi. In one, viewers are made to feel as if someone has grabbed their remote and toggled from the Super Bowl to a Tubi home screen. Other ads on Sunday night contained QR codes—including one placed on a can of Michelob that viewers could scan to gain access to a Netflix golf documentary, or another for Planters that gave fans the chance to see more of a comedian “roast” of its popular Mr. Peanut.
“It’s a way to get more engagement and make sure people pay attention,” Hahn says.
Advertisers for the most part seemed more willing to follow the pack than they did blaze their own trail. Mother’s Bruyn has noticed that marketers seem to coalesce around themes in many years, like around downbeat ads or cause-related commercials. “We had ‘the Sad Bowl, and then ‘the Cause Bowl,'” he notes, and sometimes the chord those commercials strike can be effective. Last year, a new spate of upstarts created a Crypto Bowl. Unlike those companies, chances are at least some celebrities will return next year.