Super Bowl LIV: A Food & Beverage Ad Review

A few hours before kick-off, I stood in line at our neighborhood grocery holding a can of sliced olives. Because nachos.

I waited behind a guy checking out Hot Pockets and White Claws.

And that’s pretty representative of the food and beverage priorities around Super Bowl, an annual consumption fest where Americans put away somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.4 billion chicken wings … and god knows how many gallons of Pepto.

Despite the myriad changes ushered in by the global pandemic, most conventions of Super Bowl commercials held steady: the endless parade of celebrities, a jukebox worth of music licensing, and a general sense that “they just weren’t as good this year.” Certain things endure.

Anyway, here are my three favorite food and beverage spots, along with some thoughts about what stood out during this year’s broadcast.

  1. M&M’s proved the old Lombardi adage that fundamentals win championships. A simple spot, a simple premise, and a nice string of fresh, note-perfect human gags. Dan Levy felt like a bit of an afterthought but he’s certainly a welcome addition. Though BBDO has made this type of commercial comedy look effortless for years, it is decidedly not easy to do. Well played.
  2. Chipotle asked if a burrito can change the world. Despite the company’s own checkered past with supply chain issues, this spot offered an engaging, refreshingly approachable focus on how, not what, they make and their efforts to reduce negative environmental impact. This strategy provides an increasingly important avenue for modern manufacturers to stake out meaningful differentiation for their food brands.
  3. Oatly sang their own praises. Literally. An old joke asks “how can you tell if someone’s a vegan? You don’t have to, they will.” And in a compellingly offbeat :30, their CEO did just that, singing a song he wrote himself that featured the lyric “Wow … no cow.” Was it weird? Yep. Did it cut through the over produced clutter like a hot knife through butter? Yep. This counter-programming move might have been the smartest investment of the night. Interestingly, this spot first aired in Sweden in 2014, earning a lawsuit from the Swedish dairy lobby that resulted in a broadcast ban.

A few other things worth noting …

Budweiser won the PR game. Again. The brand earned a lot of press for their decision not to air an ad during the game for the first time since 1983. Technically, that was true but parent company AB InBev was all over the broadcast and Bud made a featured appearance in their well-toned “Let’s Grab a Beer” spot toward the close of the game. That messaging felt like a more realistic approach to the same ground Jeep strove to cover with their far more overreaching effort.

Techbros Door Dash and Uber Eats want you to know they are the good guys. In a stunning piece of synchronous strategizing, both home delivery players went to great expense to show just how committed they are to supporting the local restaurants that their services charge 30% premiums for delivering. Whether a charming, modern take on the Sesame Street classic “People in Your Neighborhood” or a surprisingly witty revisit to perennial basement rockers Wayne and Garth along with a very game Cardi B, both services focused on the way they are there to support neighborhood independents. If only…

Branding fruit seltzers with beer names makes a hot mess. So Don Cheadle, yours was a pretty clever spot but does that organic seltzer taste like lime or Michelob Ultra? And do all those lemons mean the Bud Light Seltzer tastes like some sort of summer shandy? Yes, I’m old school but I’m a big fan of beer flavored beers and seltzer flavored seltzers.

Brad Garrett is a gamer. In recent years, the more I learned about Jimmy Johns, the less I liked the brand. So when their debut ad featured “Tony Bolognavich” in a big sandwich war spot, I went online to see the rest of the story solely due to a sense of marketing writing duty. That said, I was pleasantly surprised. The longer piece is good. Really, really good. It’s lovingly art directed, genuinely funny and pretty smart as it uses the gags to stake out some meaningful product differentiation for the brand. And Brad Garrett was inspired casting.

Overall, few brands took real chances, but it was not a terrible showing. It’s rarely as bad as the Monday morning media quarterbacks will claim it was, and nowhere near as bad as things were for Patrick Mahomes. No one threw better incomplete passes. Bummer.

In Praise of Product Demos

Here is a tremendous commercial, one of my favorites in a long, long time.* When you look closely, it is little more than a hardcore, wall-to-wall product sell. Nonetheless, it is also massively entertaining. I don’t know what wonderfully twisted mind decided the best way to showcase the amazing features of an adjustable ladder would be Mexican masked wrestling, but whomever they are, they earned their paycheck this quarter…

The casting is perfect. In a time of unchecked political correctness, casting Will Rubio, who self describes as an actor//comedian/sexy Cuban, and encouraging him to lean hard into the accent gladdened my heart with its pure joyfulness. “The Ladder Luchador” also features a very liberal, nee Stooges-esque reliance on physical comedy. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that every single physical gag is a product demo. And listen to those sound effects: the Foley artist had a hill of fun with this project.

At over three minutes long, this spot will never run on television, but it is currently earning hundreds of thousands of views on the internet. Not just through the Murphy Ladder Company and Home Depot paid media placements, but through impressions earned from a wide variety of news and entertainment outlets that are sharing it. That’s where I found it.

Most people don’t realize how hard this particular brand of dopey-ness is. Or how hard-working. Big congratulations to Provo-based social media agency Harmon Brothers, whose previous credits include Squatty Potty and Poo Pourri. Masterpiece Theater this ain’t, but it is very on point for today’s audiences. In fact, one posting on YouTube features a vertical aspect ratio for mobile phone consumption. Smartly done.

PS*: Yes, I’m serious. This is my favorite product demo in a long time. Like a truly loooong time. Before this, my favorite product demo spot goes back to Penn Tennis Balls, circa 1975.

The Power of Simple

In the daily deluge of news items, memes, and hot takes regarding social distancing, this one leapt off my feeds …

Astoundingly elegant, powerfully persuasive

It is a public service ad shot for the Ohio Department of Health by Real Art: an experiential production agency out of Dayton. An incredibly imaginative idea that’s perfect in execution, it racked up over 6 million views within its first 24 hours. Perhaps the only negative about this piece is how it inspires so many shameless headlines that feature the word ‘snappy.’

Real Art’s video team lead Andy Nick provided some fascinating production details on his Twitter feed. The set up for the explosive shot required 8 hours. And like most productions, time got short toward the end of the day. So much so that for the final ‘distanced’ scene, he took the precaution of supergluing the balls to the traps in case the bouncing ping pong ball thrown into their midst went awry. Remarkably, it didn’t and he captured it on the first take. Check out another view of the madness on this BTS video he shot on his iPhone from another angle.

Very impressive thinking, an even more impressive production, and an unforgettable message. This is advertising at its best. Well done Andy and team.

Emerging Business Challenges

Amid the unprecedented uncertainty at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic, every business faces new challenges. And no matter the industry or sector, these issues are serious and daunting to everyone responsible for bottom lines, workforces, and ongoing, organizational well-being.

But to one US company, this challenge must feel particularly personal. The nearly four decade old, Tempe-based audio-visual connectivity company Covid is now dealing with a business challenge that was entirely unforeseen when the quarter started …

About now, they must hear the travails of Corona beer and think, “you’re adorable.”

I’m sending them, and everyone else responsible for stoking the mighty engine of our economy, my best wishes for business success over the long term.

And personal health and safety in the short term.

The Virality of Topicality

If it hasn’t already, this video should soon pop up on your social streams. Posted to Vimeo just three days ago, “Be a Lady, They Said” has already racked up three million views with no signs of slowing…

The powerful, outraged copy came from a two year old blog entry written by Camille Rainville, a then undergrad at the University of Vermont who posted sporadically at writingsofafuriouswoman. Her words struck a chord and were widely shared over the net in January of 2018. Cynthia Nixon’s intensely measured read of that essay only makes them more viral.

This new video purportedly promotes Girls Girls Girls magazine. But the girlsgirlsgirlsmag.com URL simply leads to a web page featuring this clip and nothing else; no nav, no about, no other links.

You won’t find Girls Girls Girls magazine at your local newsstand … if you even have a local newsstand. The publication is a limited run promotional vehicle for New York and London based fashion photographer Claire Rothstein. About two years ago, Rothstein and Girls Girls Girls made waves with an editorial image of Rachel McAdams breast pumping while wearing Versace and Bulgari diamonds. But aside from that, it is largely non-existent as a publication. Its Facebook page hasn’t been updated in a year, although its Instagram feed gets regular updates of Rothstein’s imagery.

Rothstein’s aesthetic is decidedly couture: heavy on high-sheen luxury and fantasy escapism in the vein of Patrick Nagel. Her sensibility pervades this cut, with moving Rothstein style clips from high-fashion director Paul McLean. The edit also features imagery sourced (stolen?) from any number of movies, television shows, and news reports. It’s a trainwreck for rights and permissions but that’s not the point.

The point is self promotion. And riding the zeitgeist. And wow, does this piece do that.

Ryan Reynolds + Dogs = Ratings Gold

The Westminster Dog Show is pretty much the biggest event in the canine world. It began Monday morning and culminates this evening when some Havanese or Whippet or Shetland Sheepdog will be crowned “Best in Show.” You can’t begin to imagine the brushing involved, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the Westminster Dog Show airs on FS 1, FS2, and the Fox Sports App. And they’d really like you to watch.

Enter Ryan Reynolds …

Fox paid nothing to have Ryan Reynolds promote their event. That’s because Reynolds bought a stake in his Portland based spirit early in 2018, and ever since, has lent his considerable charm and wit to promoting it.

Reynold’s brilliant approach to video-based brand expansion for Aviation Gin uses clever cross promotions and collaborations with everyone from Samsung to Virgin Atlantic to Peloton … or actually, just the actress from that much maligned Peloton commercial. He doesn’t buy media, he earns it. And more importantly, he earns audiences. So advertisers like Fox Sports eagerly sign up to partner with him.

Fox Sports wins, Aviation wins, and those of us who just like a smart-assed charmer? We win too.

These simple, clever, quickly-produced brand videos, keep both Reynolds and his investment top of mind with his gin-drinking audience.

Don’t believe me? Check out some of these YouTube comments …

Well played you clever Canadian. Well played.

This Year’s Lasting Super Bowl Advertising Lesson

Now that the game is over and all the teasers and tie-ins have played out, that great arbiter of Super Bowl commercial rankings — USA Today’s Admeter — has declared a winner: Jeep’s charming and hysterical “Groundhog Day.”

Bill Murray killed it. So Jeep killed it. But Highdive? The agency that created this spot? They totally killed it.

Just not for the obvious reason.

Sure, their new spot is a note-perfect comedy gem, a meticulous recreation that adds wonderful new gags. It’s a spot we all wish we had done.

But just one year ago, Highdive was a relatively young startup agency with a handful of employees that somehow produced a :60 for the Super Bowl.

And their spot got savaged on social media.

Their ad featured a Dr. Martin Luther King sermon, artfully edited to highlight Ram Truck’s tagline “Built to Serve.” Critics cried foul, pointing out that MLK’s full remarks specifically argued against aggrandizing yourself by buying fancy cars. With Black Lives Matter very much in the headlines, their debut spot was roundly panned for being tone deaf.

So Highdive had their moment in the sun. And failed. Very publicly.

Many have written about the lessons of failure, about how much adversity can teach you for the next time. And all too many creative people lose heart when critics pounce, believing their chance is over, they missed, there will be no next time.

Happily, Highdive didn’t. And now here they are, just one year later, occupying the highest perch in the advertising landscape. They took the hit, learned from it, and bounced back with a vengeance.

And a groundhog.

Kudos to them. May many more good things lie ahead.

PS: One other lesson from this year’s ads? If you want a quick primer on how music shapes viewer emotion, pay attention to how the score and SFX of this one and this one generate inspiration and the start and stop of this one drives the comedy. Wonderful craftsmanship.

Visually Branding Seat Belts for Safety

A brilliant new driving safety campaign out of New Zealand badges injuries to stress the importance of wearing seatbelts. Every year, ninety Kiwis die because they weren’t wearing theirs during a crash, but a new campaign from Clemenger BBDO sets out to address that for their client, the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Because younger men are less likely to use one, the agency partnered with VICE to find younger New Zealanders whose lives were saved because they were wearing their seat belt during a crash. Hundreds of survivors responded and ultimately, the agency chose ten for their campaign.

To visually brand the idea, the agency brought in the FX makeup team PROFX to recreate each victim’s crash injuries. Using post-crash photographs, they recreated the physical imprint of the belts on the survivors for a powerful print and outdoor campaign. The final portraits feature survivors wearing their seatbelt imprints with palpable appreciation.

The survivor pictured above is Liam, whose car was T-boned by a truck. On the Belted Survivors website, we learn he woke up from a coma just in time to witness the birth of his daughter. Story details like this add a powerfully human and visceral urgency to the work’s imagery.

The NZ Transport’s message aims to change the perception that buckling your seatbelt is only for kids or old people. With powerful visuals like these, they should be very successful at achieving their goal. This is powerful work, beautifully and memorably done.

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Add Another One to the Advertising Disruptors List: Design

Whether you think Elon Musk’s new electric pickup looks badass or just plain bad, you can’t dismiss its market impact. As of late last night, Tesla had signed 250,000 pre-orders for the Cybertruck. That’s a quarter of a million in less than a week for an unproven, forty thousand dollar vehicle promoted with just one event in Los Angeles.

TEsla

Just. One. Event.

No ad campaign: no celebrity endorsers or catchy licensed pop songs or feature film product placements. Somehow, Tesla’s Cybertruck currently drives twice the Google searches of Ford’s stalwart F150.

Admittedly, the pre-order commitment only amounts to one hundred dollars but still, this is not how things generally work in automotive advertising, a sector famous for gargantuan promotional budgets. Besides, at a Benjamin each, that’s twenty five million dollars in deposits.

That’s not to say the look of the Cybertruck is universally loved, far from it. “A Toblerone on wheels”…”Someone take away Elon’s Lego’s”…”Like it’s from a racing game on Nintendo 64.”

But the look of the Cybertruck is definitely universally discussed. It’s singular design dominates late show monologues and automotive blogs. It’s also launched a thousand memes; unsurprising given Elon’s love for that medium. In fact, one popular online theory contends “Elon only made the Cybertruck because he loves memes so much.”

Musk’s achievement builds on a product trend that James Dyson and Target’s designer collaborations have worked over the past few decades. In our increasingly visual culture, anything that stands out draws outsized attention. And the Cybertruck certainly stands out.

Admittedly, few advertising clients would dream of designing such an aggressive, shareworthy product, but if the Cybertruck isn’t an argument against the fading relevance of mass market invisibility, nothing is.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving,

The Data Confirms It: In a Contentious, Divided Society, Joy and Love Still Rule

I’ll admit. I’m a sucker for happy endings. I love those viral clips that demonstrate human kindness and thoughtfulness writ large. Nothing is as contagious as uncontrollable laughter.

Still, it’s easy to feel bummed out these days, particularly if you use social media. Most recognize how Facebook gamed our feeds to garner more attention, and in the process fiercely stoked polarization to the detriment of our democracy. It’s depressing to see how quickly even benign social media comments get weaponized into political spew. And political debate on the nightly news rarely elevates beyond schoolyard name-calling. Given this news environment, it’s only natural to consider our society as little more than a tumble of feral, clawing tomcats in a bag.

And then, right at the moment when hope fades, along comes a day-brightening bit of undeniable evidence proving the exact opposite.

Of the 3,019 emojis in the Unicode Standard version 12.0. the top two used are Face with Tears of Joy and Heart: 😂 and ❤️.

Those are the two symbols we reach for more than any other: emojis symbolizing happiness and love. Those are the emotions we express the most. And yes, I consider that very good news indeed.

We are so loving and supportive with our emoji

I realize emoji choices aren’t long on anger or division, but don’t harsh my mellow here. I like that we have a language predicated on love and support for each other.

Admittedly, I don’t use emoji myself. I have nothing against them and will frequently type “heart” or “thumbs up” but I prefer the written word. No judgment, just preference. And I won’t deny that strings of these colorful hieroglyphics brighten up many an Instagram response.

If you’re interested in seeing where your favorite comes in on the frequency count, visit Unicode’s Emoji Frequency page.

I’m simply going to enjoy this sunny Monday a bit more, knowing that perhaps we’re not all spittle-lipped hatebags after all.

I heart that. I heart that a lot.

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