Your personal feelings about Tom Brady aside, typically nothing unites Americans quite like one football game on a Sunday evening in February. For all rights and purposes, Super Bowl Sunday should be a national holiday – albeit one that starts during the pre-game at 6:00pm and drifts, hungover, into the next morning.
This observation isn’t just about the game, of course, it’s about the ads, and the need most Americans have to weigh in about whether they were good, bad – or God forbid after spending $5.5 million just for the media buy – indifferent. To that extent, it’s more the ads that unite us, as we become a nation of coast-to-coast ad critics, delivering the verdict on which marketers understand the national psyche – and which don’t.
In 2021, as with everything else in this last twelve months, this job was harder. Though Super Bowls, and some of their ads, can serve to galvanize us, the advertising world’s attempts at Big Picture relevancy at other times have had the freedom to center around simple, universal themes. During the post 9/11 2002 Super Bowl, Budweiser featured the Clydesdales in a moving tribute to the terrorist attack’s victims. It ran just once – and it seemed perfect.
This year, marketers had their pick of national travails to focus on, if they dared – the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and a polarizing presidential election – and so perhaps it stands to reason that what emerged from marketers on Super Bowl Sunday was all over the place, with little agreement around which advertisers really scored. If anything ruled the day, it was humor (and, more often, ham-fisted attempts at it) that hearkened back to a Super Bowl Sunday Never Never Land that never quite existed in the first place. To that extent, this positioning is in alignment with one of the key insights from WARC’s recent Spotlight US on “Marketing in a polarized nation.” Escapism is in!
In most years, the best lists – whether measuring popularity or effectiveness – end up forming a kind of consensus. In 2020, it was rare to find a list of the best ads that did not include Jeep’s remake of “Groundhog Day” featuring Bill Murray, the Doritos commercial featuring Sam Elliott, the Hyundai “self-pahking cah” spot that boasted some wicked Boston accents, or the Microsoft commercial featuring the NFL’s first woman coach, Katie Sowers.
Not in 2021. Case in point: according to System1’s list of the most effective ads, it was a Huggies commercial – naturally, featuring adorable babies – that was the most “emotionally effective” of all. But according to Unruly, whose consumer polling gauged the commercials on emotional intensity, brand favorability and purchase intent, that spot ranked 13th – in a four-way tie.
USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter – the long-time, straight-up popularity poll – ranked two commercials from Rocket Mortgage, featuring the comedian Tracy Morgan, as nos. 1 and 2, followed by an Amazon commercial featuring Michael B. Jordan impersonating Alexa, a playful M&M’s spot that suggested the candy might help solve our fractiousness, and a Toyota commercial featuring the Paralympic swim champion Jessica Long.
Only three each of the System1 and Unruly lists made the USA Today’s top ten, and there was only one commercial that overlapped on all three – the M&M’s spot.
While the polls differ in their criteria, if you were to pick an overall winner, it would be that M&M’s commercial. The brand is a long-time Super Bowl advertiser that consumers expect to deliver every game day – and it does. That it danced around our sometimes violent polarization was much of its appeal.
But finding the winner isn’t actually the point of this compare-and-contrast exercise; it’s to highlight how difficult it appears to have been for brands to address any of the nation’s current issues in a way that was direct and agreed upon, including the universality of the pandemic. Most of the commercials strived for creating a world in which no one knew what a spike protein or systemic racism was.
As AdWeek pointed out, the ads were largely maskless. Even a popular spot promoting Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade – emphasizing that it was made out of the lemons of 2020 – eschewed masks on its way to also not reckoning with how we are still living in 2021 – depicting scenes like office workers in a conference room, and a man running through a crowded airport as lemons rained down in every frame. It stands to reason, then, that the commercials overall also didn’t move the needle on diversity. According to the Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing, this year’s ads proved “nearly identical in terms of representation to 2020’s, with significantly lower representation of Hispanic [and] LGBTQ+…people.”
The one exception was the National Football League itself. Its two commercials featured some of the iconic images of the last 12 months –face masks and kneeling football players. But, like any major institution backed into a corner, its hand was forced. Imagine if the NFL didn’t use its biggest platform of the year to show support for Black Lives Matter?
Which brings us to the two-minute Jeep commercial called “The Middle,” which acquired plenty of negative karma before news broke a few days after the Super Bowl that its star, Bruce Springsteen, had been arrested for drunk driving in November, causing Jeep to pull the commercial off of YouTube. Shot inside and outside a tiny church in Nebraska, smack dab in the middle of the contiguous United States, the commercial’s objective was to plead for unity, and to be EPIC.
During the time of that 9/11 commercial featuring the Clydesdales, it may well have accomplished that. But this is a time when even a call for unity is polarizing. While some loved the commercial (it had racked up an impressive 37 million views on YouTube before Jeep pulled it) for many others, it was the commercial they loved to hate.
For marketers during this Super Bowl, escaping to Never-Never Land seemed the safest place to be.