Advertising Roundtable: What Should We Take Away From This Year’s Super Bowl Ads?

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We reached out to advertising experts to get their take on what worked, what didn't and why.

As one of the biggest TV advertising events of the year, the Super Bowl is a great opportunity to see how brands are trying to push the boundaries of their messaging. Aside from the usual celebrity cameos and big budgets, we saw a fair number of brands using their air time to make a political statement. But were these effective? What larger themes should we take away as lessons from Super Bowl LI?

According to research from USA TODAY’s Ad Meter, audiences ranked the top 5 advertising spots as follows, ranked by score from 1-10:

Kia’s “Hero’s Journey” 7.47
Honda “Yearbooks” 6.96
Audi “Daughter” 6.87
Budweiser “Born the Hard Way” 6.84
Tide “#Bradshaw Stain” 6.77

Does that tell the full story? We reached out to industry experts to see if they agree with the audience, and get their take on what worked, what didn’t and why. Here’s what they think:

“The Super Bowl is still the most patriotic day of the year for media. People are watching partially because they want to see what brands have to say, and that changes how they absorb a commercial. We passed the phase when broadcast was everything. We passed the phase where digital was the future. We know that the mix is important, and that the Super Bowl remains relevant. You already have an optimistic mindset from everyone who’s watching — different from any other media event. This year, it was obviously hard to ignore the political scene. Even for the brands that didn’t want to make a political statement, people were looking into their creative executions to make them political.”

Guto Araki, ECD, Deutsch

“As always, much of the Super Bowl featured advertising that was driven by celebrity and humor. However, the brands that stuck out the most were ones who made a conscious decision to risk being polarizing in order to join very relevant conversations. Whether it be 84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins” or Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way,” the most compelling creative resulted from brands considering where they could fit into the current cultural landscape and crafting narratives that expressed a real point of view.”

Phillip Lee, Account Planning Director, HUGE

“We saw many advertisers walk a fine line this year between sentimentality and social commentary. Some, like Budweiser and Audi, attracted more attention than perhaps anticipated in today’s polarized political climate. Among the brands willing to take a principled stand, Airbnb emerged as a clear frontrunner, producing a timely yet subtle commercial about inclusion and acceptance. Aside from the uplifting message, a critical factor in the spot’s public relations coup were the actions that surrounded it.  Following Trump’s executive order, Airbnb’s chief executive Brian Chesky issued a memo stating his explicit opposition to the policy. The company then used the Super Bowl to underscore its commitment, which includes short-term housing and millions of dollars to support those displaced by the ban. While some have questioned Airbnb’s motivations, prevailing public opinion would suggest the mix of corporate gestures and public outreach is a palpable combination. More than just ‘culture washing,’ this type of consistency and alignment is crucial as brands seek to win consumer trust in the  ‘post-truth’ era.”

Shanee Goss, Executive Managing Director, Kwittken

“If you’re going to make a big brand statement on an important issue, don’t muck it up by reminding everyone it’s only a commercial. Audi’s spot was beautifully written with incredible execution…but then they show the car at the end. For me, the Drive Progress line with the Audi rings would’ve been ballsy and powerful.

I felt the same with the Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way.” It was great up until he points to the Bud bottle. Such an artful commercial that suddenly got clunky.

Make up your minds: you want me to listen to you? Or just buy something?”

Chad Leitz, Creative Director, Eleven

“What’s notable, I think, is that Budweiser, Airbnb, Coke and 84 Lumber all told stories that absolutely lived within their own brand stories. They weren’t just jumping on the pandering bandwagon, and I think that was key…On the opposite end of the pandering spectrum was Audi, for an emotional spot that claimed to support gender equality – even stating so as a matter of fact in a title at the end- when in, fact, their record on the matter says otherwise. It’s executive team boasts zero women. Possibly as a result, the ad was receiving more dislikes than likes on Youtube. That’s not the kind of Super Bowl result you’re looking for. Bottom line, if you’re going to take a stand, you’d better be able to back it up, or social media and the press will eat you up.”

Kevin McKeon, Chief Creative officer, Olson

What was the most successful ad of the day and why?

“My overall winner was Hyundai with the spot that closed out the evening.  The Super Bowl is an American holiday.   This ad celebrated the country and its military in a non-partisan way. It was not salesy, snarky or trying to be anything it wasn’t.  It utilized cutting edge technology and execution and was a perfect encore for what ended up being a very exciting game.  A non-American car brand left me feeling quite patriotic.”

Ben Hordell, Founding Partner, Dxagency

“Hyundai’s SB51 ad, that didn’t feature a single car, won the hearts over of football fans all over the world due to its emotional trigger.  During a time when Americans are in the middle of political chaos, Hyundai reminded everyone that without the brave men and women serving our country, we wouldn’t be able to experience one of America’s greatest pastimes… the Super Bowl.  Filming the entire commercial during the game brought the commercial to life and didn’t make it seem like the traditional high budget, lengthy operation that many of these commercials feel like.”

Ryan Morris, Head of Marketing, Tribe

“Most successful ad of the day based on viewers response would most likely Melissa McCarthy’s “Hero’s Journey.” It had all the big budget big humor and fun we historically all expect from a Super Bowl spot. It felt like old school Super Bowl spots in a good way.  I enjoyed it and readily accept that it was for the masses and they certainly embraced the spot. That said it was not nearly as enjoyable for me as spots that felt new and not like a time travel to Pepsi type spots of the past.”

Jonathan Schoenberg, Executive Creative Director, TDA_Boulder

“This is always a hard one. It’s easy to be a critic. Hard to be a creator. That said, here’s my non creative director opinion, guy laying on the couch POV: The brands that got it wrong are the ones that tried to make a political statement. Poor Audi. I really hated to see them walk into this buzz saw for trying to do the right thing.  They’ve been so smart over the years. So heroic, especially on Super Bowl.”

Eric Springer, chief creative officer, INNOCEAN Worldwide Americas

“I felt the strategy behind Mercedes “Easy Driver” was a smart one. Although I didn’t immediately recognize Fonda, I knew my dad would. The Coen Brothers’ style, the references, the tone – I felt it was aptly targeted.”

Sarah May Bates, Creative Director, RPA

Any other ideas that stuck out?

“The “Live commercials” concept feels a little like VR. The idea sounds amazing, but we still haven’t found a great way to pull it off. There was no purpose for why the Snickers spot had to be a live experience. The use of real time information really didn’t enhance the spot and Snicker’s platform of “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry.” The live aspect for Hyundai was powerful because it connected us to soldiers around the world in real time, which on the Super bowl stage had broad emotional appeal. But ultimately, the idea of capturing some of the best off-the-field Super Bowl moments felt a bit staged for a truly live experience.”

Michael Kadin, Chief Creative Officer, Pitch

“84 Lumber “The Journey Begins” was the first ad that has ever gotten me to “go online to see more.” It was beautifully shot, culturally relevant and it broke the internet.”

Kristen Kriisa, Associate Director of Copy, Big Spaceship

Is this type of high budget TV advertisement still relevant given the changing consumption habits of audiences?

“Given how powerful social media can be with unique viral content, it is not necessary to purchase a Super Bowl ad slot for millions of dollars. Three companies showed the power of viral content this week: Kraft, Barstool Sports, and The Weather Channel.”

Ryan Morris, Head of Marketing, Tribe

“Yes, of course. Everyone still watches live TV and the Super Bowl is the global epicenter of live TV. We all consume more and better entertainment (much of which is commercial free) but we still want to enjoy things in the moment and understand that means commercials. If you hate the Patriots like I do, you saw some pretty great commercials and that made for some wholesome family entertainment and salesmanship while everyone who does not live in New England was yelling horrible things at their televisions.”

Jonathan Schoenberg, Executive Creative Director, TDA_Boulder

“The fact that Netflix and Hulu both debuted trailers for their streaming shows (to epic success for Netflix) proves that the Super Bowl’s high budget TV continues to be relevant despite the changing consumption habits of audiences.”

Kristen Kriisa, Associate Director of Copy, Big Spaceship

“This form of advertising is certainly relevant due to the sheer scale of people you can reach with a single piece of content.  The changing consumption habits will impact how the commercial is created, released and used in larger marketing efforts but Super Bowl ads are certainly here to stay.”

Ben Hordell, Founding Partner, Dxagency

Are there any underlying trends or themes that we should take away from the advertisements this year?

“The obvious theme was companies willing to create some tension in terms of current very opposing viewpoints in this country. I want to believe companies did this for the right reasons and they were certainly being direct about it.”

Jonathan Schoenberg, Executive Creative Director, TDA_Boulder

“It was all about the storytelling. The ads that told a full story pulled viewers in and resonated on a deeper level — whether it was a star-studded ad about dreaming big or a historical ad about coming to America with a very specific dream. Those that went head-on to sell a product seemed to miss the opportunity to engage viewers with more nuance. This doesn’t mean that only the poignant ads succeeded. Humor worked as well. Two that made me laugh were Mr. Clean and Melissa McCarthy’s attempts to save the world for Kia.”

Melinda McLaughlin, CMO, Extreme Reach

“Outside of the expected broad comedy spots, I noticed quite a few stories about strength in a time of great change. I was happy to see quite a few stories with strong female protagonists – something I hope is more than just a trend, but a reality that is here to stay.”

Sarah May Bates, Creative Director, RPA

“The power of the Super Bowl can never be underestimated. It’s the one time America, and a growing part of the world, can’t wait to see advertising. That’s amazing. No other event has that pull of eyeballs. Everyone watches the Oscars for the movie stars. Everyone watches the Grammys for the musicians. Everyone watches the Olympics for the athletes. The Super Bowl is the best football game of the year. But it’s also the Super Bowl of advertising.”

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