After a year of political and cultural upheaval, Super Bowl advertisers appear to be pulling back from themes of unity in favor of in-game stunts and ads that aim for the heart — and in some cases even lower.
The stakes are high since a 30-second spot costs more than $5 million for airtime alone. The goal is to capture the attention of the more than 110 million viewers expected to tune in to the big game on Feb. 4 — ideally by striking an emotional chord with the game audience that will rub off on brands.
Next best: Simply drawing attention, even if an ad offends some people. Worst of all? Being forgotten immediately.
"More people will see me in this than they have in the last three movies I've made," actor and comedian Bill Hader ("Trainwreck") muses in a teaser for Pringles' first Super Bowl spot.
Measuring the mood
Each year, Super Bowl ads offer a snapshot of the national psyche. Last year, just after President Donald Trump took office, ads offered themes of inclusion. Airbnb showed faces of different ethnicities with the copy "We all belong," and Coke re-ran an ad featuring "America the Beautiful" sung in different languages.
This year, following a year of heated debate over immigration, NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem and the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual misconduct, many Super Bowl advertisers are playing it safer by showcasing famous faces, focusing on inoffensive causes and trying to stand out with silly humor and stunts. Of course, a few are going straight for whatever will grab attention.
Most people remember the 2004 Super Bowl for the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" when Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson's shirt during the halftime performance. But it also featured an unusually large number of tasteless ads, including crotch and fart jokes by Sierra Mist, Budweiser and Bud Light and the now-famous Cialis ad that warned about erections lasting longer than four hours.
Advertisers largely dialed it back afterward, excepting a 2009 Doritos ad that included a snowglobe-in-the-crotch joke. But this year, Justin Timberlake returns to the Super Bowl ... and so does sock-it-to-the-lower-body humor.
Groupon's ad, for instance, stars Tiffany Haddish asking people to support local businesses — then cuts to a wealthy man who plots to crush small businesses, only to double over after players nail him with a kicked football.
Groupon insists the man isn't hit in the groin, although the ad video is ambiguous. "The crotch hit is the lowest thing in the book," Advertising Age columnist Barbara Lippert said in a phone interview. "I was hoping it was retired forever."
The Groupon ad is also notable for its distinctly anti-1 percenter tone. "We think the vast majority of consumers will appreciate the over-the-top comeuppance our 'villain' receives," said Jon Wild, Groupon's head of marketing for North America.
An ad for Febreze air freshener goes all in for toilet humor. It presents a pseudo-documentary about a boy whose "bleep doesn't stink," alluding to a profane phrase that commonly refers to people who are full of ... themselves.
Rich and famous
It wouldn't be a Super Bowl without celebrities chugging sugary drinks and hawking junk food. Cindy Crawford will reprise an iconic 1992 Super Bowl spot for Pepsi. The beverage maker will also feature Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman in linked ads for new versions of Doritos and Mountain Dew.
In a Pringles ad, Bill Hader has a snack on set and introduces a made-up practice dubbed "flavor stacking," in which the actor stacks together different Pringles varieties. M&Ms has released a teaser showing Danny DeVito dressed as an M&M being dunked in chocolate.
For a non-snacking celebrity appearance, Squarespace hired a bearded Keanu Reeves and sat him by a campfire to tout its web hosting services.
Aiming for the heart
Other advertisers are aiming straight for warm and fuzzy, figuring it's best to bet on "things that are universally liked," said Kelly O'Keefe, managing director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter.
NBC created five cinematic 60-second ads showcasing Olympic athletes to drum up excitement for the Winter Olympics, which start airing starting four days after the Super Bowl. The ads showcase Americans athletes such as skier Lindsey Vonn and figure skater Nathan Chen.
An Anheuser-Busch ad shows a Budweiser brewery producing cans of water instead of beer, highlighting the brewer's donation of drinking water to places in need. Its Stella Artois brand also teamed with Matt Damon to sell a limited edition beer glass, with proceeds also targeted at providing access to water.
Lexus is promoting its new LS 500 luxury sedan, which it is aiming at a 45-to-55-year-old demographic, with an action spot starring the Black Panther, a Marvel superhero.
Recent Super Bowl ad stunts have yielded mixed results. Snickers isn't returning to the game this year after a live spot last year fell flat. But marketers aren't giving up.
Tide, which last year did a fake-out ad with Terry Bradshaw that appeared to be commentary during the game, will be back with Bradshaw this year.
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