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In review | Super Bowl LII ads showcase the forefront of the industry

Super Bowl LII’s epic showdown between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles was watched by 103 million people on US network NBC. 

Despite a seven-per-cent year-on-year audience decline, the game was still one of the 10 most viewed shows in US history – making it the perfect platform for brands to reach a mass audience. Broadcaster NBC was able to charge a staggering $5.2m (€4.2m) for a 30-second advertising spot.

The cost of a 30-second ad has doubled since 2007, triggering a debate in marketing circles about whether it is better to a) launch ads ahead of the game to hit a bigger audience across multiple channels or b) hold back the creative until the big game so that it can surprise and delight audiences. 

This year, says Activative director of content Jeremy Edwards, some brands did both – “launching pre-game teasers, trails and cuts then unveiling the full execution on the night”. Edwards cites Amazon, Tide, T-Mobile and Fiat Chrysler as examples, but this approach also extended to brands like Tourism Australia, M&Ms and Doritos/Mountain Dew, which shared an ad.

Another notable trend, he adds, was “the multiple spot buy. This may seem surprising given the cost of airtime, but brands like Michelob and Toyota – and also parent companies such as AB-InBev and Fiat Chrysler – bought multiple spots in the game.” In part this was to demonstrate market muscle, but it was also a way of standing out from the crowd. 

Garry Dods, founder and managing director of sponsorship agency WeAreFearless, says playing around with spot lengths and frequencies worked well for brands like Tide and Bud Light: “Bud Light built a sense of anticipation by releasing their humorous commercial in two parts,” he says. “They made good use of disruptive media planning to cut through, supported by the TVC’s [television commercial's] humorous storyline.”

There’s been a lot of talk of ‘live’ media in the last year but only Kraft came up with a live execution during Super Bowl, harvesting social media images of families enjoying the game and shaping them into a 30-second ad. Hyundai wanted to shoot its cancer-themed ad live but in the end had to shoot it in the stadium a few days ahead of time because of security concerns, underlining the challenges of going down the live route.

Editorially, Edwards says big winners this year were funny ads featuring famous stars sending themselves up. Amazon’s Alexa Loses Her Voice, Squarespace’s Keanu Reeves ad and PepsiCo’s Doritos Blaze vs Mountain Dew Ice rap battle were examples. Dods agrees, saying that “a year of humour over purpose set the winners from the losers. Winners included Tide with a comedic nod to Amazon’s Alexa and Tourism Australia”.

Octagon chief strategy officer Simon Wardle says another big editorial theme this year was “positive, inspirational messaging”. Toyota, Coke, Diet Coke, Hyundai, Mass Mutual and RAM all focused on pro-social messaging, while Stella Artois and Budweiser spent more time talking about donating water than selling beer. This can work, says Wardle, “as long as brands seem authentic”.

Early indications are that RAM massively missed the mark by co-opting the words of Martin Luther King for its commercial. Dods and Edwards both note that the pro-social ads attempted to go beyond value claims to action, though the jury is out on whether this seemed authentic. “For Stella, Matt Damon shared the promise that if you buy Stella ‘chalice’ online, a portion of the proceeds will go to Water.org,” says Dods. “Hyundai’s ad focused on the fact that the company donates money for every car sold toward childhood cancer research. But it felt a stretch to link car purchase with cancer research.”

CSM North America president Rob McQueen agrees, noting that “some ads that tried to pull on the heart strings got the wrong sort of buzz or didn’t really attract audience attention. Bud’s water commercial was of the moment and must have looked good on paper but I’m not sure it broke through”.

Octagon’s Wardle says there were also attempts to create catchphrases that might work their way into social media as a kind of viral currency. He cites examples like “It’s a Tide ad”, Febreze’s “His Bleep Don’t Stink” and Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly”, which has been building momentum for the last year as part of the brand’s medieval-themed Bud Knight campaign. He also identifies an air of trickery about several campaigns. Tide, Skittles, Tourism Australia and Jeep all sought to draw audiences in with storytelling twists.

McQueen agrees that Tide and Tourism Australia “cut through” with their wrong-footing humour “but other funny ads fell flat [M&M and Michelob], showing how hard humour is to do.”

One thing missing, says Levelwing CEO Steve Parker Jr, was brands making political statements, no surprise given the ructions caused by this season’s ‘kneeling’ protests.

Parker Jr says the event was characterised by several head-to-heads such as Bud Light vs Michelob Ultra, SquareSpace vs Wix and the battle between big content companies. To this list could be added Coca-Cola vs Pepsi, Tide vs Persil and the three-way battle between Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. T-Mobile’s equality campaign was arguably the most political of the night while Verizon went for safer territory with ‘first responders’.

Most years there is a notable success in terms of Super Bowl ambush marketing and this year it looked like it was going to be Mercedes-Benz. The company didn't buy an ad, instead encouraging people to play a game called Last Fan Standing on their mobiles for the chance to win a car. Unfortunately, the tech behind the campaign crashed so the company ended up having to just give its car away via an old-fashioned random draw. Parker Jr, who signed up to play the game, says: “We shouldn’t be too critical of M-B for trying something innovative. But they should have had a contingency plan for this kind of eventuality.”

Another that achieved a kind of ambush was wine brand Yellow Tail, says Apex Marketing Group CEO Eric Smallwood. “Anheuser-Busch InBev owns the exclusive national commercial rights to the Super Bowl, but Yellow Tail got round that by acquiring bought local ad space in 80 different US TV markets.”

Looking more broadly at tech trends, Edwards says augmented reality “broke through” at this year’s Super Bowl. NFL’s official digital ticket partner StubHub, app creator Virtix Arena, Mercedes-Benz, online bank Ally and local Minneapolis brewery Finnegans all deployed AR around Super Bowl. Technology trade titles report that Verizon also used the event to live test its 5G wireless technology with Samsung hardware. 

Toyota – ‘Start Your Impossible’

Automotive is one of the biggest-spending brand categories, with Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, Jeep, Mercedes-Benz, Ram Trucks and Lexus all stumping up $5m or more to advertise. Jeep and Lexus chose to produce ads with movie tie-ins [Jurassic Park and Marvel’s Black Panther] whereas Toyota, Hyundai and RAM focused their efforts on pro-social messaging. “Positive, inspirational messaging was a major trend at Super Bowl 2018,” says Octagon chief strategy officer Simon Wardle. “At a time when American society seems fractured and divided, a lot of brand chose to take the moral high road.”

This can work, says Wardle, “but the challenge for brands is a) making sure they seem authentic and b) creating work that is memorable. Humour is often easier to sustain after the event.”

Toyota aired three different ads exploring disability, aging and religious tolerance, and managed to achieve memorability in several ways. 

Firstly, says Wardle, it chose a theme that dovetails with its Olympic and Paralympic sponsorship programme, which runs until 2024. In one ad, for example, it told the story of Lauren Woolstencraft, born without legs and now a Paralympic medal winning skier.

Secondly, it positioned itself as a company looking at the future of mobility beyond motoring: “Vehicle ads can be a bit generic,” says Wardle, “with sweeping shots of cars on windy roads. Toyota has followed the lead of brands like Subaru by challenging people to think of their brand in a more socially inclusive sense.”

Finally, adds Wardle, the Toyota ads sought to develop a durable brand positioning around the strapline Let’s Go Places: “They used transport as a metaphor for the joy of living. That’s a flexible message that can be modified for other scenarios.”

Tide – ‘It’s a Tide Ad’

Arguably the most ingenious ad of Super Bowl LII was Tide’s hilarious skit on Super Bowl advertising tropes, starring David Harbour of Netflix hit show Stranger Things. 

“P&G’s Tide used their first spot to set up the idea that every ad is a Tide ad,” says Wearefearless’s Garry Dods, “and then played on the theme in additional spots leaving you wondering whether every subsequent commercial was a Tide ad”. 

Already, the slogan looks like it is becoming part of the social media lexicon. It also seems to be doing a good job of deflecting attention away from the brand's issues with the bizarre social media craze in which kids challenge each other to eat Tide’s colourful detergent pods.

The ad involved a clever collaboration, says Dods, by referencing another P&G brand, Old Spice. Old Spice’s ‘the man your man could smell like’ was one of the most iconic ads of Super Bowl 2010, and currently stands at 55 million YouTube views.

Levelwing CEO Steve Parker Jr believes the Tide ad has the kind of “memorability” that will carry through into the post-game period: “90 per cent of Super Bowl campaigns don't deliver because the brands don’t invest in their post-game strategy. But I think Tide is now set up to build on its momentum via TV and social.”

This view was echoed in a recent interview in Ad Week, where Preeya Vyas, managing partner, digital at Tide’s agency of record, Saatchi & Saatchi said: “Postgame, in a perfect world, the idea will resonate and naturally live on … that’s the goal.”

Dods says one thing to watch will be whether audiences enjoy the “meta” approach: “I liked the ad’s self-aware approach, but it will be interesting to see how well it lands outside of ad land/marketing circles.” 

Other brands to use this “meta” approach include Skittles, which ran a campaign starring David Schwimmer in which the central conceit was that their Super Bowl ad would only be shown to one person. Intuit, meanwhile, promoted its time-saving features by skipping its own ad.

Doritos Blaze & Mountain Dew Ice – ‘Lipsync Battle’

One of the Super Bowl’s funniest ads saw actors Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage engage in a Lipsync Battle on behalf of Mountain Dew Ice and Doritos Blaze. Both brands belong to PepsiCo, which claims this is the first time two brands have shared top billing in a Super Bowl commercial. Not only is this a cost-efficiency, it’s a good fit. Although presented competitively in the ad, they could be consumed together.

Freeman and Dinklage are big stars and Lipsync Battle is a popular TV show around the world – all components that have helped drive audience engagement around the ad. As an example, Dinklage’s appearance against a fiery backdrop had Game Of Thrones fans speculating that the ad confirmed a favourite fan theory about Dinklage’s character in the hit HBO series. The actors were also supported by the artists whose songs they were miming [Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot] – hitting another huge audience segment via social media.

Evidence that this approach worked comes from LikeFolio, which uses data gathered from social media to measure trends and shifts in consumer behaviour as well as consumer reaction to marketing campaigns.  According to LikeFolio, “Pepsi stole the show with its 2018 Super Bowl commercials as its brands Doritos, Pepsi and Mountain Dew generated massive amounts of positive chatter. Doritos and Mountain Dew took the #1 and #2 slot for consumer sentiment (see tables for more).”

Market analysts are split on whether it makes sense to tease a Super Bowl commercial – to generate greater audience – or hold it back until the night to create watercooler impact. In this case, the campaign narrative was set up ahead of time with highly-watchable teasers involving the actors and musicians.

In other extension activity, PepsiCo ran a Snapchat lens on Super Bowl Sunday where fans could record themselves trying to lip-sync like Dinklage or Freeman. PepsiCo has had success with Super Bowl Snapchat activity in the past, generating 160 million impressions for a Gatorade lens it ran two years ago.

Amazon ‘Alexa Loses Her Voice’

At time of writing, the winning ad – by YouTube views – was Amazon’s Alexa Loses Her Voice, with around 41 million. Smart and funny, the ad imagined what would happen if voice assistant system Alexa was replaced by celebrity substitutes. Amusing cameos from Anthony Hopkins, Rebel Wilson, Cardi B and Gordon Ramsay gave the ad cross-generational appeal, says Apex Marketing Group founder Eric Smallwood.

Smallwood says the ad stood out for a few reasons. “Pre-game, there were a number of teasers both on video platforms and also via Alexa. There were three audio pieces on Alexa that set up the strategy, including one where she cleared her throat.”

During the ad, continues Smallwood, the word Alexa was used at least 10 times but didn’t trigger people’s devices at home. This, apparently, was thanks to acoustic fingerprinting techniques that could distinguish the ad from genuine Alexa references. “Another thing that got people curious was the use of Amazon headsets in the ads, leading to speculation that the company might be moving into Alexa-related hardware.” The company has denied this, but the fact that the company has filed for a patent for Alexa-enabled headphones is intriguing.

Steve Parker Jr, CEO of Levelwing, says he is reserving judgment on the Amazon Alexa ad until he sees more evidence of a sustained strategy around it. “For the Alexa campaign to be truly memorable, Amazon will need to think about what next.”

While the campaign was ostensibly about technological innovation, Parker Jr’s view is that it “was actually more about the competition between Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and Hulu to see which will control consumer access to content”. 

Tourism Australia – ‘Crocodile Dundee 3’

The Super Bowl is a brilliant platform for launching movies and TV series, with the Jurassic Park and Star Wars franchises especially prominent this year. But arguably the best ‘film’ execution of the year was a Tourism Australia campaign masquerading as a reboot of the Crocodile Dundee franchise. “It was a fantastic ad,” says CSM North America president Rob McQueen, “using a fake movie trailer to create social buzz.”

The Droga5-designed campaign broke on January 17 with star-studded online trailers that purported to be promoting a new Dundee movie. Fuelled by appearances from Danny McBride, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie and Isla Fisher, social media went crazy trying to work out whether the movie was really going to happen or if it was a spoof.

The true purpose of the campaign was only officially confirmed during Super Bowl, but rumours the film might be an elaborate hoax started early – boosting Tourism Australia’s online presence. Data from ad tech firm Amobee put the Oz agency at number one among Super Bowl brands in terms of digital content engagement during January (up 1,256 per cent). Until the Super Bowl reveal, there was an authentic looking website promoting the new movie. But after the Super Bowl ad this was immediately refreshed as a dedicated tourism destination.

For young audiences, an obvious question is why use a movie franchise that was at its peak in the 1980s? The answer is that a tourism campaign built on the back of the original film helped double tourism to Australia over a three-year period. This time round, it will probably take a year before we can really judge the impact of the Dundee initiative on visits and revenues.

The overall cost of the new campaign, which is supported by Qantas, American Airlines and Wine Australia, is $29m. If that sounds like a lot it’s worth noting that Americans spend around $3bn a year on trips down under, a figure forecast to reach $3.6-$4bn by 2020. This campaign aims to boost that annual spend to $4.8bn.

The campaign also includes a series of online videos called ‘Why Australia’ where Danny McBride chats ‘talk show-style' with Chris Hemsworth, Curtis Stone, Matt Wright and Jessica Mauboy. To convert interest into bookings, tailored travel itineraries and destination information has been published on Australia.com. This is supported by a campaign ‘marketplace’ which has airfare and holiday offers from industry partners.

The Rights-holder – NFL's ‘Dirty Dancing’

NFL has had a rocky season, mainly as a result of the protests against police brutality that have seen several high-profile players kneel during the national anthem. Could Super Bowl’s seven-per-cent drop in viewing be explained by a viewer boycott among those offended by the gesture?

Levelwing CEO Steve Parker Jr says it is too early to evaluate if the Super Bowl’s ratings decline was caused by fan anger about the protest, but he thinks it is more likely the result of the Patriots reaching the final three times in the last four years: “Fans can lose interest if a sporting event gets too repetitive.”

CSM North America president Rob McQueen also doubts that the decline is down to politics: “You see a lot of the same politics in NBA but that is regarded as being culturally relevant by consumers and the marketing industry. I think the problem is the NFL is in a down cycle that might have been triggered by too many rules. A lot of people call it the ‘no fun’ league.”

McQueen says there are signs the NFL has recognised its problem and is trying to respond. In May, for example, it lifted its prohibition on flamboyant player celebrations “and during Super Bowl it took a very different and unexpected path with its ‘Dirty Dancing’ promotion. Among my peers that has been the real talking point of the last few days because it’s the most fun that NFL has been off the field for the last few years.”

The promo, which featured New York Giants players Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., has been one of the hits of Super Bowl LII and McQueen believes it might help NFL get out of its rut. “If they can continue that self-deprecating humour into the off season they might change the conversation.”

The Sponsors – Pepsi, US Bank, Rovio

Aside from the game itself, most media attention around the Super Bowl is on brands buying spot ads. But there are also high-profile sponsors connected to the event such as half-time sponsor Pepsi and stadium sponsor US Bank.

This year, Pepsi’s half-time activity centred on a show by Justin Timberlake, which most critics felt to be underwhelming. Nevertheless, Apex Marketing Group reckons the value of brand exposure to Pepsi was still huge. AMG’s president Eric Smallwood says: “Our view is that Pepsi had one of its best half times for years, with brand exposure worth $32m. As a bonus, PepsiCo’s Gatorade brand generated around $2m in media value from the player dunk at the end of the game.”

Apex’s brand exposure analysis also shows that US Bank generated great ROI in terms of exposure. “Because of its presence during key moments like the coin toss, we reckon US Bank generated around $38m in value. It has some smart signage placement – better than most stadium sponsors.”

PepsiCo ran ads for its flagship brand as well as Doritos and Mountain Dew. It also teamed up with Google to enable audiences to watch an augmented reality/virtual reality version of the main Pepsi execution ‘This is the Pepsi’ using their mobile device or desktop. 

Suzana Apelbaum, group creative director, Google Brand Unit explains: “Pepsi’s commercial takes viewers on a journey through some of the brand’s iconic moments. In Pepsi Go Back we collaborated on an experience where fans travel through time and step into Pepsi commercials that became some of their biggest pop culture milestones.”

US Bank’s activation around the event mainly focused on Minneapolis, home to both the stadium and the bank itself. During the week of the event, it placed ads at a light rail station near the stadium, and also created Super Bowl-branded ATMs that invited customers to donate to the American Red Cross. 

Pepsi and US Bank also joined forces with the NFL, Aramark and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority on a campaign called Rush2Recycle, which set out to recover more than 90 per cent of stadium waste. This strategy aimed to leave a positive green legacy in the Super Bowl host city, and create a playbook for other leagues, teams, site operators and fans to follow.

Another sponsor that made good use of its Super Bowl association was game company Rovio, which joined forces with the NFL to release a Super Bowl-themed version of Angry Birds 2 and Angry Birds Evolution. As with the NFL’s own ‘Dirty Dancing’ promotion, the partnership also has brand benefits for the league itself, says Michelle Micone, NFL SVP of consumer products: “Our partnership with Rovio illustrates the NFL’s desire to engage fans through unique experiences. The Angry Birds portfolio provides an excellent platform to reach millions of mobile gamers and football fans around the world.”

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