Super Bowl LV was like no other. The game was played before the smallest stadium attendance in history, 25,000 fans, to allow for social distancing. There were far fewer viewing parties. And despite being touted as a dream matchup, Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers sealed the National Football League championship in a lopsided win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
So with the final score a surprise to most, it was the commercials that were criticized for being far too predictable.
Creative PR pros say most brands followed the tried-and-true playbook of Super Bowl activations past. They created highly produced funny or feel good escapism with celebrities who could promote the brand to their social media followers and the talk show circuit. Yet given the challenging times and changing viewing habits, those who rewrote the rules performed the best.
Lee Maicon, Edelman’s global chief innovation and strategy officer, who joined the firm last April from McCann, says “some brands stuck to old formulas” while others “thought more creatively and worked on the premise that people were going to be on multiple screens while they were watching the Super Bowl.”
“In the most interesting spots, brands took advantage of the fact that most people were probably watching in smaller groups from home, and with an iPad or phone in hand,” he says. Those harnessed the power of social media and earned media to carry and amplify their ad’s message.
Reddit, he says, did a brilliant job. The platform’s Super Bowl commercial was just five seconds — getting media coverage for those few moments ate up its entire annual marketing budget. It featured a printed statement that honored “underdog” Reddit users for taking on big hedge funds in a clear, if unstated, reference to the GameStop stock push.
Reddit changed the Super Bowl script by, first, eschewing a big production, allowing for its message to be incredibly timely and relevant. Second, it counted on viewers to rewind, pause, screenshot the ad, post it on social media and try to find out more about what they just saw.
“They know we’re all watching on delay or on-demand, and that we have the ability to search something on the web as we watch,” says Maicon. “So they posted the same image at the same time as the Super Bowl on Twitter, which was really smart. The craft was really in the coordination between the ad, Twitter feed and tapping into what was happening in culture on Wall Street.”
According to Google, Reddit ranked second of the most-searched Super Bowl commercials on game night.
Maicon also applauds Mountain Dew for another spot that had people taking screen captures. It invited people to count the number of bottles in its ad for a chance at a $1 million prize.
“It was a pretty classic 30-second spot, but the craft was also in the coordination” from social to owned media, he says.
According to Brandwatch data, Mountain Dew was the most mentioned brand on Twitter during Super Bowl LV with 318,000 mentions, outpacing runner-up and halftime show sponsor Pepsi, at 243,000.
As for misplays? “Brands that didn’t quite have their clocks set for 2021,” says Maicon, noting messaging that supported a cause or group that felt like it belonged a few years back.
“Winning brands used the Super Bowl for a moment of cultural reflection or delight in what has been a completely ridiculous year,” says Maicon. “The losers said or featured something that didn’t feel relevant. It made them look out of step.”
James Wright, global chairman of Havas PR Collective and CEO of Red Havas, says the ads that resonated most on social and earned media focused on human connection, be it through emotion, humor or togetherness, or a combination.
“Next year, I think the theme will be about people getting together in person, hugging and being out together, celebrations and party,” he says. However, without ignoring pandemic restrictions, Wright adds that “people also needed to feel a sense of connection this year.”
He cites Uber Eats for tapping into that insight. The ad reunites the stars of “Wayne’s World,” Wayne and Garth — actors Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey — who encourage viewers, with an assist from rapper Cardi B, to support local restaurants.
Uber Eats changed its social media logos to include “Excellent,” one of Wayne and Garth’s catchphrases. The campaign also used earned and social media on Super Bowl Sunday to launch a $20 million Eat Local Relief Effort dedicated to helping local restaurants.
However, some brands fumbled their purpose plays, says Wright.
He counts Jeep among them. Its ad stars Bruce Springsteen calling for political unity by having Americans meet in “the middle.” But he says the connection between the brand and the message was muddy, and notes the negative response on Twitter.
“It has always been important for brands to be authentic, but especially now it needs to make sense to consumers,” says Wright. “It sounded preachy, and that is not the tone people want to hear right now.”
Jeep has since pulled the ad from both TV and YouTube after media reports surfaced that Springsteen was charged with drunk driving in November. It illustrates the dangers that can come with anchoring a campaign to a celebrity, especially one not thoroughly vetted.
“They really shouldn’t have gone down this path [had they known], particularly with the increased scrutiny every brand is facing in the current environment,” Wright says of the singer’s driving offense. “It’s even worse when you know that every Super Bowl ad will be dissected, pulled apart and opined on.”
Purpose on the bench
Some experts predicted that cause and purpose marketing would play a key role for brands in the Super Bowl. But Avra Lorrimer, EVP and New York market leader at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says, “If anything, the absence of purpose communications stood out.”
She says that was particularly surprising following Budweiser’s pre-game announcement that it would donate their media spend to vaccine education, a huge earned media win for the brand.
“I expected that there would be more attention on the vaccine,” states Lorrimer.
So while she says, “Ford issued a compelling call to ‘Hold the Line’ and Chipotle asked, ‘Can a Burrito Change the World?’, most brands felt we needed to laugh more than we needed a worthy, beautifully shot rallying cry.”
“Brands felt we needed a break from reality for a few hours,” she adds.
Big brands without ads but with a Super Bowl LV campaign also adopted that approach.
Procter & Gamble debuted an initiative on TikTok inspired by the popular This or That challenge, which asks users to choose the option they relate to most by pointing, sliding and strutting to Run DMC’s rap, “It’s Tricky.”
With its #ThisorThatSBLV TikTok Challenge, options were created in connection to P&G brands, Gillette — “facial hair” or “clean shaven”? — and Old Spice.
According to agency partner Taylor, P&G’s branded hashtag challenge had more than 4.2 billion views during Super Bowl week. Super Bowl TV advertiser Doritos got about 1.7 billion views for its #DoritosFlatLife challenge.
More than 6,000 TikTok users also used P&G’s Branded Effect, similar to an elaborate Instagram filter, to create videos, more than twice as many as Doritos.
“Before our Branded Effect, only users with strong video-editing skills could participate in the ‘It’s Tricky’ viral trend. We enabled thousands of people to easily create their own videos,” says Taylor account director Sade Ayodele, adding that the firm licensed the rights to the Run-DMC song.
“This gave our videos the same high energy as the original viral videos,” she says. The spots incorporated Super Bowl LV marks and engaged NFL players, including D.K. Metcalf of the Seattle Seahawks, and TikTok creators like The McFarlands, to post videos and invite their fans to do the same.