What is the more popular pastime, watching Super Bowl commercials, or the game itself? Even among diehard football fans, it’s a polarizing question, although a Nielsen survey suggests 51% of viewers enjoy the ads even more than game itself. Still more controversial: what qualities make an ad worthy of the Super Bowl Hall of Fame?
Every year, I sit down with my students and ask just that — and opinions often vary. Some prefer emotional tear-jerkers starring the Anheuser- Busch Clydesdales, others favor funny ads, like your typical Doritos commercial.
Then there are your plain weird ads, like Mountain Dew’s 2016 PuppyMonkeyBaby, that seem both hilarious and terrifying. Millennials, the data suggests, are of many minds when it comes to rating commercials. But they’re also an increasingly crucial audience for advertisers to reach.
Here are my choices for the best Super Bowl commercials from the last five years:
#1 Always: Like a Girl (2015)
Having studied decades of Super Bowl ads, the female empowerment theme may currently be the surest formula there is for an A+ commercial. The ad frankly addresses an enduring stereotype by showing what ordinary adults and kids think it means to perform a task “like a girl.”
#2 Audi: “Prom” (2014)
Not your typical car commercial. In it, a male high school student is initially awkward about going to prom alone… Until his dad tosses him the keys to the Audi. He kisses the prom queen – earning himself a black eye from her date – and ends the ad behind the steering wheel and high on life.
#3 Bai: Bai, Bai, Bai (2017)
An inexplicable marriage between Christopher Walken, Justin Timberlake, and his 2000s’ hit “Bye Bye Bye”… And it’s a juice commercial? A seemingly random combination produces an instant hit: an ad that seems like an inside joke that only the millennials are in on.
#4 Taco Bell: “Forever Young” (2014)
Does a millennial-targeted ad have to feature millennials? Not in this case. In another offbeat, funny ad by Taco Bell, some senior citizens break out of the retirement home for a wild night on the town.
#5 Microsoft “Empowering” 2014
Microsoft doesn’t opt for promoting itself or its products, but instead highlights the power of technology to empower and connect us all.
Here are some keys that make for a millennial-friendly Super Bowl commercial:
1. Referencing corporate social responsibility or societal issues. Ads with an ethical message addressing a timeless or topical issue — like female empowerment, for example — tend to score major points with millennials. It’s not enough for companies to prove they have the best product – they also need to demonstrate their commitment to equality, progress, unity, or some other relatively uncontroversial value. That appetite might indicate a backlash against the divisiveness of American political life.
2. Capitalizing on the nature of the relationship millennials have with brands. Commercials that connect a product to an identity — whether it’s based on age, political persuasion, or some other category — are bound to connect with millennials more than brands that fail to do so.
3. Millennials are more drawn to visually stunning, artsy creative. Research findings from Ace Metrix document how creative or elaborately produced ads stand out with millennials. Very high creative quality seems to resonate more with this group than other age cohorts.
4. If humor is used, make it quirky. Ace Metrix found that ads classified as “quirky” perform better with millennials than other groups. Humor is commonly used in Super Bowl ads, but humor that seems offbeat or totally random is most likely to appeal to millennials.
One lesson is clear: commercials that play it safe are unlikely to make an impression on this eclectic generation. The only thing a millennial-friendly ad can’t afford? Playing it safe.