The Super Bowl Commercials of 2016: A Mash-Up of Missed Opportunities

Simon Mainwaring / Advertising / 2 years ago

Stars – they’re just like us! They use online tax preparation services, drink domestic beer, enjoy affordable mid-size sedans, and look for apartments using their smartphones!

Whereas last year’s round of big game advertising sought to provoke with an upwell of sincerity and purposefulness, this year’s offerings hoped to delight with a small nebula of stars. (Around forty, to be semi-exact.) Everyone from perpetual punch-line Scott Baio, to certified A-list Hollywood royalty like Dame Helen Mirren and Sir Anthony Hopkins got in on the act. Two actors—Jeff Goldblum and Paul Rudd—showed up in two different campaigns. Ryan Reynolds populated an entire neighborhood all with himself.

But was all this starpower enough to get you to pay attention? Remember the product, or better yet, have a social media “interaction” with that product? (Don’t worry about actual sales; we’re just after impressions here.)

It’s no secret that audiences become more and more splintered each day, so recruiting some of the world’s most well-known performers for the country’s biggest televised event is a time-honored play for the kind of recognition and reach that brands remember fondly from decades past.

But it’s also a canny hedge against being quickly forgotten. (Or worse, ignored.) Instead of hoping that a clever, emotionally resonant idea succeeds on its own merits, brands can leverage the robust social-media presence of said star, or stars, for added awareness and influence. (And if the spot is one that’s compelling enough for you to share on your social media channels, so much the better.) It’s not enough to get people to merely think these days, brands need them to share, tweet, link and like, too. With this year’s cost to air a thirty-second spot at 5 million dollars, brands sought to maximize value for their investment with the kinds of executions that stoked anticipation before the game, and then demanded to be discussed after.

The irony of all this celebrity winking is that the spots that actually seemed to make the most impressions the morning after – both good and bad, it’s worth noting – were those that featured bizarre and/or emotionally resonant ideas, as opposed to more conventional efforts that leveraged the likability of a famous face. The prime example being Mountain Dew’s instantly notorious effort that is either a surreal meta send-up of big game advertising clichés (Puppies! Babies! Monkeys!), or a nightmarish fever-dream that can’t be unseen. (Perhaps it’s both?) Either way, you won’t soon forget it.

Another big winner in terms of “shareability” and social media conversation (at least with its teenage demographic) was Doritos’ fan-submitted subversion of the aforementioned baby trope. As with the Mountain Dew spot, you can debate its artistic merits, but you probably won’t forget it.

In a more gentle celebration of advertising clichés, Heinz scored a near-unanimous winner with wiener dogs racing to meet their condiment masters in fields of culinary happiness. Because really, what kind of American doesn’t love dogs, both canine and cute?

Of the few ads that recalled last year’s more earnest, socially-conscious tone, two stand out—Grey’s simple, effective spot for No More, an anti-domestic violence initiative. In ad blocks filled with the usual celebrity sparkle and bombast, its stark, relatable visuals and building tension make it stand out. (As with last year’s No More spot, this spot’s airtime was donated by the NFL.)

And in their first big game ad ever, Colgate helped raise awareness for a luxury many of us take for granted, all while actually doing a good job reminding the audience of what they’re selling.

So who are Super Bowl ads for? The people that make them? The fans that watch the game? What are they supposed to say or do? In a year where a parade of politicians are all over TV in an effort to win the big campaign, do we need big game commercials to express our hopes, fears, and ideas for a better country? Or is it simply enough to shock, titillate or entertain viewers with a string of ultimately self-serving product features? In contrast to last year, Sunday’s Super Bowl ads seemed to do more of the latter. The resulting crop of commercials felt decidedly underwhelming leaving us to wonder what more could have been achieved through messages with greater meaning than puppymonkeybaby.

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