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.

On Crowdsourcing and the New Professional Promiscuity

Last week’s news that Wrigley canned their three digital AOR’s in favor of independent shops who will operate in a state of perpetual “jump ball” for future campaigns (Wrigley’s uninspiring website is here) is just the latest example of the creeping influence of crowdsourcing on brand marketing, particularly since those agencies will work directly with Wrigley’s brand teams, rather than through its creative agencies, DDB and BBDO.  Hmm…  Good luck with that.

Currently on crowdSpring.com

Currently on crowdSpring.com

I’m sure Wrigley calls this efficiency, but perhaps not surprisingly, I can only see it as hubris, plain and simple.  Let me be clear: I actually like crowdsourcing.  I think it offers a lot of upsides, even as it aggressively threatens the traditional agency compensation structure  status quo.  In fact, when clients ask me about crowdsourcing, I give them the name and details of one of the best purveyors of it: crowdSpring.

Why would I do this?  Why would I allow, even encourage, clients to go this route?

Because doing it right is hard.  Really hard.  Crowdsourcing thrives on thoughtful interaction.  If you want people to work for you, you owe them the fundamental decency of personal feedback.  You must provide direction to everyone–good, bad and ugly.  And you have to do it publicly, for the entire crowdsourcing community to observe.  Play favorites and the crowd will turn on you.  Set high expectations without offering your own heavy engagement and they will walk away.  It’s not as simple as ask and receive.  Nothing ever is.

And that’s why I encourage clients to try it for themselves.  Because it’s freaking hard.  Really hard.  At its root, an exercise in crowdsourcing is an immersion in creative direction at its most basic and busy, and most brand managers I know would make awful creative directors.  Most creatives make awful creative directors because dealing with all those imaginations all of which need guidance gets draining.  With crowdsourcing, ideas pour in with astonishing volume and speed and you have to assess them, redirect the potentially useful, and gently shunt aside the awful on the off chance that the creators of that initial tripe might go back later and hit a long ball for you.  Spending five days with a project where hundreds of people offer their ideas and demand feedback will usually remind brand managers just why they chose the bookish side of the business, and why they actually need creative directors.  As smart as they may be, few have the mindset for the task.  Aesthetics are a series of judgment calls without any absolutes.  You can always be wrong.  And just in case you don’t think so, people will be quick to remind you of it.

As Bill Bernbach said, “I warn you against believing advertising is science.”  Indeed.  Practiced well by people who know and respect the craft, creative direction is something much, much more.  It is art.  And magic.  And all too often, it is an exercise in wrestling with the intangible.

They don’t teach you how to handle that at Kellogg or Wharton.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79