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.

How Do You Sell Mass Media Without A Super Bowl?

It was fun last week, discussing and debating the Super Bowl ads. It felt particularly special since it’s so rare that we all share an experience. The digital/mobile takeover consigned such commonality to the past, now that we build networks conformed to our own perspectives.

When even our media gravitate toward the niches Chris Anderson famously dubbed ‘the long tail,‘ how can you attract people back to mass platforms like network television, the long tailed beast’s metaphorical body?

Like any marketing challenge, successful solutions require a brilliant strategy. Just over three years ago, some clever people promoting Denmark’s TV2 created video content that is as strategically brilliant as it is emotionally powerful …

Celebrating not what divides us but all that we share; this is a resonant insight brought to tone-perfect life through writing, casting, music, and edit. There’s such delightful surprise in the discovery of our collective commonality and the unexpected things we share.

Locked off so much of the time in our own corners, it’s helpful to be reminded of that. Helpful, and reassuring.

Four year old video content for Denmark's TV2 warmly demonstrates a strategy for attracting people back to mass media: the things we share.

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.

Talking Super Bowl Stuff with Wendy & Bill

Every year, I look forward to this day and my annual Super Bowl commercial recap with WGN 720’s Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder. Aside from being pants-wettingly funny, Wendy and Bill always bring their own fascinating, non-advertising-centric perspectives and I walk away thinking about things a bit differently. Good conversations have that effect.

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On a side note, if your city ever gets an opportunity to host a Super Bowl, do it. It’s a lot of fun and brings a ton of energy to the downtown that more than makes up for all the visitors and their unimaginative “but it’s so cold” whining. Even better, if your city planners can install special lighting around the venue, maybe you too can create something half as amazing as this…or you can do it in post, whatever.

Prince

Almost two years gone and Prince still owns this city. Remarkable.

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Talking Super Bowl Ads

For a number of years now, I’ve spent the Monday after the Super Bowl talking about the ads from the big game with my friends Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder of WGN Radio.

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It is always a hill of fun. And no, Bill is nowhere near as serious as he appears in the photo above.

From my perspective, two stuck out as particularly relevant to Digital Kitchen: H&R Block’s minute long visual fest touting their alliance with IBM’s Watson, and LifeWater’s “Inspiration Drops.”

The H&R Block ad is visually stunning, combining live installations, motion graphics, and a generally artful eye to some hardworking visualizations of abstract concepts. In the party context of a Super Bowl, it was probably less successful than it will be elsewhere but the conceit of the cube and all the data it contained hinted at a smarter, deeper story for the brand and this alliance.

LifeWater on the other hand, was purely visual with no purpose beyond style. Without a narrative, it stumbled early and never recovered. Yes, there’s a link to the art that appears in the city and the art on their plastic bottles, but that is an awfully thin link. Art does make life more inspired, but this just felt flat. Because art without story is less.

I mention these two pieces because so much of our work involves creating experiences around imagery. For us to be truly exceptional in this discipline and stay ahead of the ever-growing pack of competitors, we can’t ignore the underlying narratives critical to imbuing our work with meaning. It is the story behind the visuals that keep audiences paying attention for the second, third and hundredth time they’ve seen something.

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