Sappy Super Bowl Ads

Although this year’s game was a blowout, the Super Bowl was a big win for advertisers. The average $4-million tab purchased a record viewing audience for any television event in U.S. history. As a regional advertiser, I was just glad we placed our clients (including Hungry Howie’s Pizza and Henry Ford Health System) in the first half of the game.

In review of all the ads, I had an epiphany. Or, you might call it a philosophical challenge to our stated agency purpose of “Better brands for a better human condition.”

Gone are the days of ads that list product benefits and ask for the sale. When a brand employs emotion and motivates a better human condition, it creates value for a customer, even before the transaction takes place. It’s counterintuitive, but effective. Ads that are genuine and unselfish seem to inspire the best in us. We wonder why brands spend all that money without telling us about their products, yet these are the ads that have been proven to actually sell more product. Several of these “selfless” ads caught my attention this weekend.

Budweiser: The dean of Super Bowl advertisers really went for the “better brand” connection with the story of a hometown reception it sponsored for a returning military vet, complete with a parade – and the Clydesdales. Budweiser did a good thing, and people loved them for it. However, not all brands have been as successful at employing this emotional tactic. Why? If these ads in any way appeared to take advantage of our soldiers to manipulate consumer sales, they would have been caught in a the highest form of selfish corporate behavior. Budweiser avoided this pitfall by not closing the spot asking for a sale. Imagine our disdain for the brand if they had simply added the phrase, “So buy bud.” Yuck! Thanks for doing it right again, Budweiser.

If advertisers missed one thing this year, it’s the fact that the Super Bowl is a party. We are supposed to get together with friends and family to enjoy a game. Some consumers are calling foul on several advertisers because something didn’t feel right about the tone of the spots this year. Fans are asking where all of the funny ads have gone. After all, isn’t it a worthy contribution to society for advertisers to bring a little laughter to our overly stressed out and difficult lives?

Although I love the Budweiser series, I wonder if we have taken this whole sappy approach to advertising too far? We all witnessed several Super Bowl efforts that played out on Sunday with mixed reviews on this issue:

Coca-Cola: Not uncommonly, Coke strummed its favorite theme of globalism with a rendition of “America the Beautiful” that ended up being sung in several different languages, as the ad’s images formed a montage of multiculturalism. Many Americans enjoyed the melting-pot mélange, but many others objected to the very point of it: The song wasn’t all in English. Some tweeted, Aren’t ‘new’ Americans supposed to become ‘one of us’?

It’s sad that a country founded on the principle of freedom is arguing about who gets to be more free and what language we should speak. However, this ad represents an example of the risk we take with agenda advertising. Regardless of your good-hearted attempts to pursue culture change, advertising can fall flat when it appears to take side on political positions. Having worked with their brand research department, I’m sure this was an unintentional outcome by our friends at Coke. They are very sensitive to controversy. Who would have thought that an ad about bringing people together would create such division?

Cheerios: General Mills’ ad for Cheerios featuring a family with a black father, a white mother and their child has created a media discussion about politics on MSNBC. I might be naive, but I thought this political battle ended after the Civil War and civil rights legislation in our grandparents’ generation. I’m surprised this is even interesting in our modern culture, but, I admit, I must not be the target audience. The commercial itself was a sweet testament to family life and a plug for the cereal. Normalizing race relations is a safe bet for Cheerios, who has determined to stand as a better-brand platform in a country that elected an African American president. I only wish they had launched the campaign in the 60s, when it would have been more noticed. With this ad and its recent decision to shun GMOs in their products, Cheerios should let the media keep talking on their behalf. Cheerios might be sappy on the Super Bowl, but it’s a better brand in my blog.

Chevrolet: CMO Tim Mahoney has said that Chevrolet needs to reconnect emotionally with American car buyers, so the brand’s Super Bowl ads attempted to do so. One spot featured actors who’d actually fought cancer, riding silently in a Chevy Silverado truck in an awareness pitch for cancer survival. That’s a brand helping build a better world, brining hope and identifying with an important population that is, unfortunately, very big. Again, I’m not the target audience, but I’m not sure how family members of cancer victims felt during their Super Bowl party. Great ad, but perhaps it would have been more effective on Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. It was a bit of a Debbie Downer at my party.

Chrysler: This year’s most important ad for the company was a rightful successor to earlier Super Bowl efforts for the Chrysler brand that began with the iconic Eminem spot in 2011. This time, Chrysler turned to Bob Dylan in a rare commercial appearance, extolling the benefits of American manufacturing – and who doesn’t like that? That’s the way to give us a Super Bowl experience, Chrysler!

T-Mobile: Perhaps no ad on Sunday was more surprising than the spot for T-Mobile starring Tim Tebow, the controversial ex-Denver Broncos quarterback. In 2010, recall, Tebow was controversially the star of a Super Bowl ad by Focus on the Family, along with his mom, who had decided against advice to abort him.

But on Sunday, T-Mobile performed a bit of advertising jujitsu with Tebow’s personal story that wasn’t likely to offend anyone, picturing him in a variety of fantastical roles — as an obstetrician, a bull rider and a rock star — that he could fulfill without a contract.

Get it? Tebow can’t seem to get a contract as a professional quarterback anymore, so he’s got to find something he can do without such a pact; and T-Mobile users don’t need a contract. T-Mobile found an effective way to brush aside Tebow’s polarizing effect and build a better world by bringing people together for a disarming moment of fun and humor that we can all enjoy. After all, isn’t that what the Super Bowl is all about?

Let’s face it. Most of us don’t have a home team in the game on Super Bowl Sunday. It’s about setting our differences aside for a moment. We simply love getting our loved ones together to watch somebody win and have a few laughs. We rarely go home upset from a loss. Most normal fans don’t start a family feud over sides taken seriously. That is the unique national holiday we celebrate in this country. And, even if admen like me forget our place and get a little too sappy at the party, I’m proud to be part of the advertising community that makes it all possible.