The Super Bowl played out in the shadow of the pandemic. So which brands were the bravest when it came to delivering their Big Game spot in strange circumstances?
It’s probably fair to say at the start that the bravest advertisers of this year’s Super Bowl may have been the ones who decided to stay away. Budweiser, particularly, made headlines when it donated its advertising cash to a vaccine-awareness campaign.
Brand owner Anheuser-Busch’s CMO Marcel Marcondes, cited by Forbes, said it was “good for the economy, it’s good for society, and it’s good for the brand.” Marcondes added that if a brand decided to pull out of the event, it might as well ask itself: “So what are you going to do better instead?”
In fact the company had it both ways, as its corporate spot, "Let's Grab A Beer", from Wieden+Kennedy, got Bud and all its other brands on screen while delivering a feel-good film that stayed just the right side of sentimentality.
Other brands may have felt that $5.5 million for a 30 second spot was reason enough to pull out – especially in a world of anxious staff and flagging profits. Coca-Cola, for one, skipped the game because it preferred to “invest in the right resources”.
There was also the challenge of striking the right tone. Almost everyone has suffered in one way or another during the pandemic – and there has been loss and tragedy. Super Bowl advertising often comes with a smirk, so what if your gag caused offence?
Some of the ads walked a knife edge. When I reached out to Minda Smiley, agencies reporter at Adweek, she hesitated to call any of the advertisers “brave”. “In fact it seems as if many brands are leaning into humor and lightheartedness after such a trying year—taking more of an ‘escapist’ route, if you will,” she said.
Having said that, she cited Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade as one of the few brands “that really addresses the pandemic head-on” with its spot “Last Year’s Lemons”, from Wieden+Kennedy New York. While she felt the ad would likely resonate with most viewers, she added: “I could also see it catching flak for its whimsical tone, which might not sit well with some people considering how tragic the past year has been.”
So far so good. Talking of flak, the trading app Robinhood raised a few eyebrows by running an ad that ignored the controversy roiling the startup after it provoked a stock market storm. It’s true that the nicely lit and edited “Born Investors”, by MediaMonks, would have been perfectly acceptable in other circumstances. Rumor has it that the brand considered pulling out, so maybe it was one of the Bowl’s risk-takers after all.
So whose ads were the boldest? Jeep certainly pulled out all the emotional stops for its beautifully crafted “The Middle”, starring Bruce Springsteen in his first ever spot. It stirred memories of Chrysler’s “It’s Half Time, America”, narrated by Clint Eastwood, in 2012. Springsteen co-wrote the music for the film, according to Billboard, and worked with his own creative team – even revising the script. Although it started with a church, seen by some as divisive, it was generally felt the piece succeeded in its plea for unity. Three days later, in a dramatic twist, Jeep said it had “paused” the commercial, removing it from social media accounts, amid reports that Springsteen had been cited for driving while intoxicated back in November. (He was eventually cleared, so the ad could run again.)
On an entirely different note, Amazon and Lucky Generals were widely praised for “Alexa’s Body”, which blended wit with sex appeal in a way that was borderline risqué, if not risky.
Talking of wit, the idea of Will Ferrell declaring war on…er…Norway for General Motors in “No Way, Norway”, from McCann Worldgroup, was pleasantly surrealistic – and the pay-off was a genuine chuckle. One of the most cinematically satisfying ads was “Upstream” for Toyota by Saatchi & Saatchi, featuring Paralympian swimmer Jessica Long. Good to see Saatchi on such classic territory again.
One way of taking our minds off the current situation was to reach back to the past. Wasn’t Timothée Chalamet perfectly cast as “Edgar” Scissorshands, son of the original Edward, in Cadillac’s “ScissorHandsFree” spot from Leo Burnett?
Laughter, tears, a dash of nostalgia. In the end, this edition of the Big Game did not feel as different as it could have done. And if there was a winner on the advertising front, it was probably Anheuser-Busch.