Super Bowl 2015 ads reflect our conflicted era

February 03, 2015

Last year, I wrote a blog post about my impressions of the collective body of Super Bowl ads and what it might tell us about consumer trends.

Being pleasantly surprised by the amount of feedback I received that my mother wasn’t the only person reading my blog post, I decided to make this an annual installment. So I spent this year’s game running to fix food in the kitchen while the game was on and rushing back to the couch in time for the commercials.

I had faint recollections of some powerful ads last year, really tugging on emotional heartstrings, and the usual smattering of humor, cleverness and impressive special effects. I recommend having a peek at my summary from last year and the composite of the two posts might make an even more compelling story about how society and consumer trends are shifting over time. So without further ado, let’s relive Sunday’s ads and draw some conclusions!

I don’t know what else to say about the Super Bowl 2015 ads other than I was underwhelmed. C’mon — when your team isn’t playing and there is no guarantee of a close game, we really look forward to these ads! They were short on humor, fairly unimaginative and some left us feeling downright yucky or depressed. I’d say the sucking sound left in the wake of In-Bev’s acquisition of Anheuser-Busch and the company’s downward trend of Super Bowl ad production was as loud as ever this year without a clear heir to the Super Bowl ad throne.

Yuck. The overwhelmingly strong emotion I recall from Sunday night was some combination of yuck, eeew, and oh-that’s-depressing. Toyota started the yuckiness with their exploitative How Great I Am ad featuring disabled individuals dancing, running and skiing with a Muhammad Ali voiceover in the background. I’ve since poked around and found Amy Purdy, a remarkable Paralympian snowboarder, actress, model and Dancing with the Stars contestant, who was featured in the ad. I'm sure Toyota's intent was inspiration, but I was so turned off when a Camry seemed to randomly show up at the end of this confusing ad. It felt like Toyota was desperately (and poorly) exploiting  Purdy's success to sell a car. It set my mood for the rest of the yuck-eeew-ugh commercials that followed.

Carnival begged us to come back to sea with a strange evolution/biology lesson about the salinity of our bodies and ocean, which wasn’t remotely inviting when they mention blood-sweat-tears in the hopes we will take a relaxing cruise. Kim Kardashian left us feeling ickier yet with her spoof on respectable causes and appeals with her Save-the-Data bit for T-Mobile. And Nationwide is already taking heat (even though I tried to avoid seeing any critique of ads until after I write this) over their scare tactics used in the Make Safe Happen ad for killing the kid before any of his major life milestones. That one in particular was just downright depressing.

Can any brand and product deliver to everyone in a divided, disparate business and economic climate?

Win. But at the same time, more seasoned Super Bowl ad contributors brought their usual level of class and polish, while others tackled similar subjects as the “yuck” crowd with a little more finesse. Anheuser-Busch took its well-established brand of feel-good story to the big game in the familiar form of horse-dog storyline. The lost puppy was rescued by the Clydesdales and all is well in Bud-land.

Coke tackled a new internet demon — cyber bullying and its relationship to teen and tween suicides. A tough subject to be sure and Coke, who has more or less owned “share the love,” took it on with a perfectly brand-aligned message. McDonald’s cozied up next to Coke in that “love” space and has a really creative promo running through Valentine’s Day with Pay With Lovin.’ Genuine feel-good, authentic do-good from those we count on for quality ads year after year. And speaking of, I thought Microsoft’s use of Braylon, a paraplegic five-year-old getting the most out of life and his prosthetics thanks to Microsoft’s algorithm and optimization, was more genuine and authentic feeling than Toyota’s Camry with Purdy.

Football. Want any more proof that marketers are avoiding advertising using football like the plague? After the year the NFL had dealing with silly scandals, serious health concerns, and high-profile domestic abuse cases, look no further than the toe fungus ad from Jublia. Looking at fungus on cartoon toes is awkward for sure. As is a helmeted big toe followed around a football field by his four little-piggy friends. But the most awkward part was seeing a spot trying to sell product by hitching its wagon to football. The other national past-time? Absolutely. Super Bowl bigger than the Fourth of July? Looks like it. But this sweetheart sport has gotten a few black eyes this year and the Jublia marketers didn’t get the message somehow. It stood out like a sore…toe. As an aside, I’m a little relieved that marketers can’t use football to sell this year. It was such a cheap cop-out for actually advertising properly and football has become such a big-dollar sport that the last decade has felt like the NFL and football have been rammed down our consumer throats at a gorging pace. Please, let’s avoid this marketing ploy and appeal to some other portion of our cultural identity.

Men. Last year we started to see the first recognition by advertisers that, contrary to popular belief throughout the 90s and 00s, men are not morons and dads are not bumbling idiots. (Keep an eye out—this was an easy target for cheap laughs for so long that some are still using it. I can almost promise that you’ll cringe if you see an ad depicting a doofus dad). This year, capable dads and thoughtful men were out in force. However, I didn’t feel particularly connected with any of them. Dove tried with Care Makes a Man Stronger, but didn’t quite nail it. As did Toyota in One Bold Choice, but I’m guessing dad’s don’t feel they need to be told who they are. Plus, Toyota was asking a huge suspension of belief to think that your daughter would appreciate her dad asking her to dance when she was sitting alone at the prom, all in the interest of making that caring-man connection. Even Nissan took a crack at being the most caring male during #withdad. They maybe came closest of any, but I’m gonna wager that 99.99 percent of guys can’t relate to being a professional race car driver to go along with fatherhood. Stay tuned to men — somebody will crack this nut sooner or later and we’ll see a lot of effort trying in the meantime.

This and That. Snickers tapped the Brady Bunch in a clever bit. AmFam is helping get some unrecognized artists a start. Even Hollywood popped in to remind us that they’re still around after a lackluster 2014, but they’re playing it safe with proven winners like Terminator, Fast and Furious number I-can’t-count-that-high, Minions, Ted and Fifty Shades of Grey. This is probably the first year that the public became consciously aware that mobile apps are big business, thanks to A-list spokespeople Liam Neeson spouting some Rob Roy in a coffee shop for Clash of Clans (brilliant, by the way) and Kate Upton building empires and waging battle in Game of War. Budweiser put a strong stake in the sand and said their beer is not for microbrew sniffing hipsters. And I would go as far as to declare Dodge a category winner (not supreme ad champion, but noteworthy for some made up category) for their collection of centenarian advice in Here’s to the Next 100 Years.

With so much at odds or just unsettling (funny and depressing, GoDaddy departing from its usual jarring tease to gently tip the cap to small business owners, luxury vs freebies, drawing distinct lines between us and them, and tough social issues in our face and just under the surface), what conclusions can even be drawn? Maybe that’s just it. It’s tough and uncertain yet things are going well? Or for some, they see things are going well, but aren’t exactly feeling it themselves (…how ‘bout a little coming our way?). Luxury isn’t out of vogue like in the wake of the great recession, but at the same time political parties have vilified one-percenters because of their crime of being successful. The market surged in 2014, joblessness decreased, and home sales are steadily improving. Yet we are faced with the realities of impossibly expensive college education, our sports heroes abusing their wives and kids and even committing suicide from brain injuries, foreign turmoil, and domestic policies implemented to shrink the wealth gap having adverse effects on the middle class it was meant to help. I struggle to find a needle direction that this year’s collection of ads points us in, so maybe they serve as a warning more than anything. There is a lot of yuck and eeew out there amongst our fun and good. We need empowerment from Braylon as well as Estella and her bus, and encouragement from P&G’s Like a Girl to rise above the social muck and political divisiveness that drags us down. Turbo Tax reminds us it is possible with their Boston Tea Party.

Super Bowl 49 was a superbly entertaining game, with a mighty struggle played out on the field. The ads accompanying that struggle might portend a rough climate in front of us where smooth sailing is not so smooth, and some pockets of real struggle a stark reality in recovering prosperity. Can any brand and product deliver to everyone in a divided, disparate business and economic climate? I’ll be watching eagerly…

If this was too sobering and you need a good laugh, go back and watch Avocados and Subway’s Tough Dodger.

— Written by Dan Sarbacker