By treating the Super Bowl as an opportunity to showcase one-off celebrity appearances independent of distinctive brand activations, advertisers may be sacrificing long-term equity for the sake of some short-term buzz, writes WARC’s Cathy Taylor.
While the phrase ‘armchair quarterback’ is well-known to any fan who has a friend who believes they can call plays better than an actual NFL player, the moniker ‘armchair ad critic’ also applies to most Americans on one Sunday night every February, during the Super Bowl.
According to a recent survey by The Harris Poll and Marketing Brew, some 76% of people planning to tune in to the Big Game this weekend said they were excited about watching the ads.
Is there any other moment in time, anywhere in the world, where those outside of the marketing industry take such an interest in commercials?
Which is why it is strange that, year after year, Super Bowl advertising generally doesn’t stand out – even from itself. It tends to be its own very limited genre that usually doesn’t work particularly well outside of its game-day context. And it tends to be overly reliant on one-off celebrity star turns, broad humor and a surprisingly light amount of distinctive brand assets, especially in terms of long-time spokespeople who would help make one ad truly stand out from another. And it does all this at a cost of $7 million for a 30-second ad!
Even though this is a long-term trend, this year brings the issue into sharper focus due to a recent decision by Mars’ M&M’s brand, a long-time Super Bowl advertiser, to cast aside some of advertising’s most distinctive brand assets, in the form of its long-time spokescharacters. They are actually humanized representations of the brand’s candy pieces. What could be more valuable?
They’ve been deep-sixed, after their recent politicization, in favor of Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph. (Yes, I’m definitely a member of the camp who believes this may very well be an elaborate stunt that will lead to the mascots returning on or around game day on February 12. The fact that Rudolph, the brand’s “Top Banana and Queen of All Cool Stuff,” has renamed the candy “Ma&Ya’s”, and now says she’s replacing the chocolate filling with clams, seems the perfect set-up for the spokes-candies to come back and save the day.)
But whether or not those particular assets come back into play, brands advertising on the Super Bowl this year seem once again deadset on the same strategy: of relying on borrowed interest to sell their wares. But that detracts from branding rather than augmenting it.
Take a peek at some of this year’s ad lineup, packed with celebrities repping brands for the first time: Meghan Trainor for Pringles, Missy Elliott and Jack Harlow for Dorito’s, Melissa McCarthy for Booking.com, Paul Rudd for Heineken’s non-alcoholic brew 0.0. Does anyone remember that, last year, Rudd starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Lay’s potato chips with Seth Rogen? Or that McCarthy appeared in several Super Bowl commercials for Kia a few years back?
And then there’s the case of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who will revisit their characters from ‘Breaking Bad’ on behalf of Popcorners. In that case, aren’t the distinctive brand assets the show and the characters rather than the snack? Maybe, just maybe, some of these commercials are the beginning of a close brand/celebrity collaboration, but past Super Bowl history doesn't make one optimistic.
Skechers is not returning to the Big Game with a commercial featuring Willie Nelson. There’s no sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Salma Hayek are still repping BMW’s EV, that Ewan McGregor is still associating with Expedia, or that DJ Khaled continues to endorse Intuit’s Quickbooks. But, they were at this time last year, and, probably, only a few consumers remember it. I study these things for a living, and I had to look it up.
Maybe brands tell themselves that since Super Bowl viewers say they’re actually paying attention to the ads, they can give normal concepts of what works in advertising a pass. But that doesn’t seem wise. The Super Bowl is a sports contest, an advertising competition, and, perhaps most of all, a social event, during which a large percentage of the American public watches the game with other people at bars, restaurants and parties, typically with lots of alcohol.
In 2022, for the first time ever, Nielsen and the NFL worked to unpack how big that audience actually is, and came to the conclusion that total viewership was 208 million, although the average audience across NBC, NFL and Yahoo! properties was just over 112 million. Quibble about those stats’ accuracy all you want to, but the bottom line is: lots of people are partying!
While there are exceptions to the rule of “a new year means new Super Bowl celebrity advertising associations”, those are few and far between. Will Ferrell returns for GM’s EVs. Pete Davidson will again appear in the Hellmann’s mayonnaise ‘Make Taste, Not Waste’ campaign and Serena Williams makes another appearance on behalf of Michelob Ultra, but neither takes a front-and-center role. And just to keep the confusion rolling, Williams is also apparently starring in a Super Bowl ad for Remy Martin.
Even when marketing to a population that says they are watching the ads, brands should realize that this constant reliance on a kaleidoscope of celebrities to endorse their products during by far the biggest TV event of the year may be asking too much of the audience – and sacrificing long-term equity for the sake of some short-term buzz.