What consumer trends can be gleaned from Superbowl ads?

February 07, 2014

Here in the U.S., we live in a capitalist and consumption-driven society, where consumer spending accounts for a significant percentage of GDP. So it would stand to reason that any form of advertising could provide insight into purchase trends occurring in the marketplace.

What better way to get a peek into the psyche of our economy than by making an audit of television advertising, and what better time to do that audit than during the Superbowl? With a little careful reflection, we might glean a few nuggets of insight into the retail and consumer environment from Sunday’s menu of Superbowl ads.

Vintage. First off, I’ll say that anything “vintage,” “authentic,” “historical American,” etc. is still “in.” This validates a macro trend that is strongly in place: it is good if it resembles anything from the good ol’ days, eras gone by that we regard as slower, less-rushed, happier and more “real” than our current moment.

Technology. On the flip-side of slow and less-rushed is the pace of technology changes. I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but for now I’ll say the tech ads boil down to this: tech is wonderful but horrible at the same time. We all acknowledge its ability to make our lives better, make us more efficient with our time, and to provide us information in speeds and amounts unfathomable two decades ago. But at what price? Constant disruption, information overload, media paralysis, inhuman (and inhumane) interactions. The ads during the game saw technology pushed as a way to deliver warm fuzzies [“…bring speech to the voiceless…”,] (featuring a former NFLer fighting ALS), and technology as the solution to tech that’s noisy, comes as a constant barrage, and is obtrusive and life-complicating[a better internet].

I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet, but for now I’ll say the tech ads boil down to this: tech is wonderful but horrible at the same time.

Cars. From unaided recall, [Ford, Toyota (Muppets!), Chrysler, Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Volkswagen, Honda] I remember these car ads. The spend on car ads suggests car makers suspect that money is out there to spend again. But the way they targeted potential buyers was incredibly broad and varied, which suggests they all disagree about how to woo those potential buys. And none of those ads seemed the least bit able to market to a millennial. (Who will crack that nut?!) Of note, Chrysler ran a very, very long ad that didn’t feature a product until the very end of the ad. This was reminiscent of their Eminem/Detroit ad. I still don’t think they’ve quite found an equation that works. But they’ll probably have more press for a long, mostly unmemorable ad than will Ford with a just plain unmemorable ad. Kia went luxury (?!), VW went silly (with a back story that acknowledged a father figure in line with today’s “capable dad,” not “bumbling idiot dad” that still lingers in out-of-touch marketers’ efforts), Toyota brought the Muppets who have a movie coming out, and Chevy played human emotion big time -- once with comedic romance (bull and cow), the other with a celebration of cancer survivors and their supporters in a well-conceived ad that probably didn’t leave a whole lot of dry eyes.

Luxury. The recent recession was so long and deep that being seen as a luxury consumer became very out of vogue. Luxury brands had to reach down-scale with price points or find ways to subtly brand their premium name, lest consumers shun them for being out of touch with hard times. The patterns of inconspicuous consumption are still prevalent. Kia’s [Matrix, Morpheus] ad suggests that we are far enough removed from the recession that luxury is starting to be acceptable again, particularly if that luxury comes from a non-luxury brand.

And the winner is… Which brings us to the winning theme of the night. Hugs. Hugs were big this year -- huge in fact. And upon further reflection, it is not entirely surprising. Many Americans struggle with unemployment and underemployment going on multiple years, housing and economic turmoil, unstable and uncertain futures, threats of terrorism and violence at the Olympics, shootings at elementary schools and movie theatres become commonplace. Hold your dear ones close. Budweiser has more or less owned this “feel-good” category for years. While Bud Light has become known for its humor, Budweiser has stood for “patriotic” and “feel-good,” and this year they reinforced their dominance with more truly heartfelt commercials overtly featuring hugs. Their soldier landed to a big hug and returned home to a big parade in his honor, Clydesdales making a prominent appearance in full regalia. And the puppy! Who could say no to puppy hugs, particularly when a whole barn full of renegade Clydesdales put a hoof in the way to trip up best friends being separated. Even Bruce Willis got in on the hug action on behalf of Honda.

As usual, some ads were spot on and others were off the mark. A brief look at the collection of Superbowl ads begins to validate existing trends and suggest the beginning of new ones. I encourage you to look back at the funny, serious and absurd and share your impressions.

— Written by Dan Sarbacker