It is a good thing the game on the field was so exciting this year, because the parallel contest among brands for our attention was decidedly somber at this year’s Super Bowl. As I am sure a number of critics will be pointing out this morning, and many in the audience already figured out during the game, advertising took more the form of lectures this year than the usual jingoism, stupid excess and broad comedy.
Even if the NFL itself can’t figure out how to handle its own scandals, advertisers clearly were taking their cue from the league’s disgraceful fumbling of domestic violence cases last year. The unapologetic, oafish, screaming guy-fan, who seems a fixture of so many football spots, was replaced this year by sensitivity. Nissan and Toyota praised the good guy in separate ads designed to jerk tears rather than pound chests. Dove’s Men+Care ad on “Real Strength” iterated the dad theme as well. The problem is, laudable as each was in theme, they all melded together from taking on the same theme. I also noticed that none of them got any mobile or online traction.
The Anti-Super Bowl spot spot meme got picked up by Jeep. It eschewed the jingoism of many recent Bowl ads by invoking the American dirge “This Land Is Your Land” as an overlay praising the global landscape and international cultures. The irony of glorifying natural environments in an ad from a fossil fuel guzzling, terrain-ripping SUV was not lost on many in the social channels.
Weight Watchers didn’t get the buzz it deserved for an ad that sent up food advertising and media programming of all sorts. Its mocking of excess in food commercials, food TV shows and disingenuous claims of healthy alternatives was among the best-executed ads I saw in its spot on satire. The call to action landed users on a WeightWatchers.com home page that carried forward the theme. It let the user re-watch the rapid-fire commercial to catch all of those fleeting references. And it also offered to email you more info later so you could keep watching the game.
The pop culture references and nostalgia took the place of comic excess this year. Favorites must include Liam Neeson getting all “Taken” on a mobile game opponent and Bryan Cranston doing a Walter White as pharmacist cameo. Cranston seemed to win the online echo effect, with more tweets than I saw for other ads. Unfortunately, the joke only masked the fact that the brand message was obscure in relation to the sponsor esurance. At least we knew what product Neeson was there to push.
Continuing the sensitivity theme, Budweiser’s puppy and horse romance also got its share of Twitter love. This year, the puppy is in dire peril, saved from a wolf pack by a team of Clydesdales. I have to admit that I was never a fan of the original puppy ad, and this one turned a corner of manipulative excess I couldn’t bear. Even my wife, who did like the original, thought this spot got lost in its own melodrama.
But the ad did spark an enormous online outpouring of puppy references. No doubt the animal Planet Puppy Bowl has something to do with the puppy trope too. Both Lenovo and Labatts brands used social media to echo the puppy love.
The undisputed downer of the game was Nationwide’s widely panned spot that used the haunting voice of a child speaking from the great beyond to remind us of household dangers to children. The social sphere exploded in irony, mainly thanking Nationwide for breaking up the big game with a dead kid. Ironically, Nationwide also had one of the funniest ads of the game, its Invisible Mindy Kaling spot where the comedienne enjoys an invisible existence, until she tries to kiss Matt Damon.
There was altogether little attempt by brands to drive people to online experiences and leverage mobile second-screen presence. Coke rode the same sensitivity and preachy train everyone else was on with its Make It Happy spot about reversing online hostility. It instructed people to respond to negative posts with #meh and #lame hashtags. When you respond to a negative post with the MakeItHappy hashtag, Coke turns the original negative post into a happy ad that, alas, usually includes a Coke bottle. Yes, Virginia, happy has a brand. Half of the ads had hashtags, but most of the tags I checked had tepid responses and not a lot of interactivity from the brands themselves. Coke at least was setting itself up for a long-term online/mobile project.
Probably the most successful online echo of a major ad this game was the Always Like a Girl spot. It was among the few sensitivity spots that succeeded by showing more than preaching. The image of pre-pubescent girls wonderfully free of gender stereotypes clearly activated social media, as images of the young stars of the spot spread online quickly. Among my favorite brand hijacks of the hashtag was from Jet Blue, which posted a picture of two women pilots in a cockpit who “Fly #LikeaGirl.”
In fact, one of the themes of this Super Bowl in the mobile/social channel was brands drafting on other brands and being part of a lot of cross chatter. It got tiresome. McDonald’s used it Lovin’ it theme to praise most of the other ads appearing during the game and then begging for retweets in order to award prizes that were related to the ad spot. Consumer Reports for some strange reason decided to play the geeky scold. It responded to many of the ads by pointing the Twitter audience to its lab reviews and exposes.
From a mobile perspective, despite the occasional hashtag callouts, there was little deliberate use of the second screen beyond the usual social channels. Facebook made a big deal this year about targeting ads into game watchers’ streams, but I saw little of it. Most of the action was happening on Twitter, and it was underwhelming. In fact, the social sidecar most of us rode during the game got so tedious and unremarkable with brands trying to draft off of the game and other ads that it seemed to beg for an alternative.