The Evolution of Super Bowl Ads

Imagine lounging in your comfiest chair, with an ice-cold drink in your hand, after switching on your big wooden box of a television. It’s finally Sunday evening and you’ve been waiting to watch the Los Angeles Raiders destroy the Washington Redskins all week. The third quarter just ended and Los Angeles is set to win, when something comes across your screen: an image of seemingly brainwashed men marching in a straight line towards the voice that orders them. What is this? Loud stomping accompanies the unnerving black and white picture. Propoganda? A young woman dressed like an Olympian runs down the centre aisle of what appears to be a theatre with Big Brother’s face on the screen. The woman throws a sledgehammer towards the screen in slow motion and it shatters. Words come across the screen: “On January 24th, Apple will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984”. An unknown rainbow logo from a company you’ve never heard of appears on your screen. A commercial?

The ad that kicked it all off

Produced by the ad agency Chiat/Day and directed by Ridley Scott, Apple’s first ever commercial aired during the 18th Super Bowl, playing off George Orwell’s popular novel, 1984. Although it isn’t the brightest-looking ad, it was still a major success, with approximately $3.5 million in Macintoshes being sold in the weeks following the revolutionary masterpiece.

I’m not going to pretend to be a football fan, or even pretend to have watched Justin Timberlake perform during the halftime show for the third time (first with NSYNC in 2001 and the second in 2004). Although “Nipplegate” was amusing, you can imagine the plan was for things to go much more smoothly this time around. What I am interested in is what viral entertainment emerged from the Super Bowl advertisements this year.

While we avoid commercials every other day of the year with our DVRs and our AdBlock, for some reason on the day of the Super Bowl we welcome them with open arms. In fact, we welcome them so much that Canadians petitioned to be able to view American ads on the Canadian simulcast of the championship game, rather than substituted Canadian commercials as is usually the case with our broadcasters. Channels like CTV and City dish out millions for the rights to air American TV shows and sports specifically with the hopes of making a larger return from Canadian advertisers wanting slots during their primetime programming. Bell, which owns CTV, has been openly opposed to the CRTC’s decision last January to ban the simultaneous substitution of Canadian ads over the American ones. Since the ban, Bell has cited a loss of $18 million and blamed these losses on 50 company layoffs in late 2017. In other words, the ramifications Canadians are willing to accept just to be able to watch some commercials that we would avoid on any other day of the year is simply astonishing.

The “magic” is gone forever

I recently read an article titled “The magic of Super Bowl ads is gone forever,” in which its author, Jason Lynch, grumbled about the fact that ever since the emergence of the internet and video sharing, we typically see Super Bowl ads released online days or even weeks before airing on their televised counterparts. I understand where Lynch is coming from. You might end up hearing about a few commercials or even come across them via friends sharing them on Facebook, but at the end of the day, a few million views are nothing compared to the approximate 111 million pairs of eyes that will see them on Super Bowl Sunday. Marketers use this pre-release tactic to build anticipation and create buzz – anything to get people talking about their brand. GoDaddy’s chief of communications said that “releasing content early allows the brand to deliver its message without having to compete with the other advertisers fighting to connect with consumers on Super Bowl Sunday.” Some companies are even taking it a step further by releasing ads for their ads, like the M&M’s teaser trailer with Danny Devito.

Why do we watch Super Bowl ads?

Is it to see our favourite celebrity endorsers or marvel at the high production quality of the ads themselves, like the sparkly car commercials we’re forced to watch at the movie theatre? Is it the fact that all our friends will be talking about them and we have a case of FOMO? In my opinion, it’s the storytelling. It’s the advertisers’ willingness to think beyond themselves and say something with their $5 million. That’s what buys you 30 seconds of attention from over a third of the U.S. population.

This has been a developing trend in marketing – making cinematic commercials with high quality storytelling and images so beautiful you can’t help but become mesmerised by the screen in front of you. Tourism Australia took this trend quite literally by producing a fake movie trailer for a sequel to the cult classic, Crocodile Dundee. With Australian talent, including Chris Hemsworth, Hugh Jackman, Margot Robbie and Danny McBride, the ad increased digital content engagement around Tourism Australia by 1256% compared to the previous week.

There’s been another interesting trend recently involving not only the use of storytelling, but storytelling with a purpose. Many brands have taken to incorporating political messages into their ads by attaching themselves to a cause. It’s true that this is mostly a marketing scheme to fill their corporate social responsibility, but certain brands have been making some pretty bold statements. 

Making a statement

It’s Feb. 5, 2017 and Trump hasn’t been in office more than a month before implementing his abominable travel ban. In response, Budweiser aired its Super Bowl commercial, “Born the Hard Way.” The ad dramatises a young, Adolphus Busch, as he immigrates to America and meets his partner, Eberhard Anheuser, to found Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Budweiser and a dozen other brands. Watched by more than double the number of Americans that voted for Trump, the ad was a resilient political statement and a direct reply to the new immigration reform policies.

The same year, Audi aired a feminist ad which declared its support of equal pay for men and women. Portrayed through the voice of a father dreading the conversation he’ll have to have with his daughter about the gender pay gap – how no matter what, she will be seen as less than a man. And although it may have come out of nowhere, Audi declared its support for equality in a time when women were beginning to speak up all over and the year the Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

Although it didn’t air during the Super Bowl, you may have heard of Burger King’s clever net neutrality ad. With the use of their Whopper Burger, the fast food restaurant manages to explain the FCC’s questionable revisions to Obama’s pre-existing regulations to their consumers. Once again, it was an unflinching attack on the Republican-leaning FCC, while simultaneously producing an incredibly effective viral ad (which just happens to mention the word Whopper about 20 times).

While I didn’t watch this year’s Super Bowl, I always look forward to seeing what messages come out of the NFL championship game. While Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman rap battling over Doritos and Mountain Dew is entertaining to say the least, it’s the ones willing to take risks and advocate for the important issues – the ones that give us a cause to get behind, that should be praised.