Why some Super Bowl commercials fell flat while others won the night

If there was a theme that appeared to unite most Super Bowl commercials this year, it was mashups, or ads trying to appeal to the broadest set of consumers.
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By Claire Atkinson

Super Bowl LIV was full of surprises both on and off the field. The Kansas City Chiefs won the trophy for the first time in half a century and despite rumors, Tom Brady did not retire. Instead, photos on social media teasing that the New England Patriots quarterback would end his career were simply part of an advertisement campaign for Hulu, the streaming service owned by Disney and Comcast.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Brady said, to the disappointment of some and the relief of others.

Similarly, Super Bowl ad watchers were led to believe that Planters was doing away with its iconic Mr. Peanut. In a twist, the ad airing during the game showed that he was instead replaced with a baby peanut. The Outline predicted days prior that Planters was simply taking advantage of what it called Grief Twitter.

Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, was not impressed with the lineup of Super Bowl ads delivered this year. Viewers have been led to believe that the commercials are unmissable, but that’s not so, he said.

“In the sober light of day, they are not that remarkable,” he said during an interview about halfway through the game. Advertisers are stretching their ideas too far by playing them out on social media for so long that they’re tired come Super Bowl Sunday, he said. Thompson pointed to the Cheetos spot featuring MC Hammer as an example. “By the time it played on Super Bowl Sunday Night, the place it belongs, it’s already an old joke,” he said.

Not surprisingly, political ads from President Donald Trump and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg were not popular in some quarters. “The idea that both of these men are champions of women of color are very interesting claims,” Thompson said.

Bridget Fahrland, head of digital strategy at digital commerce company Astound Commerce, didn’t think there’d be as much post-game chatter about commercials as in other years. “The space for analysis has already been filled by the impeachment, coronavirus, Kobe … and the upcoming election,” she said.

If there was a theme that appeared to unite most Super Bowl commercials this year, it was mashups, or ads trying to appeal to the broadest set of consumers by using a range of personalities or cultural references.

A Doritos spot featured Lil Nas X and actor Sam Elliott in a dance-off to the viral hit “Old Town Road.” “Doritos does this mash-up of different targets colliding,” said Kimberly Whitler, assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “They’re trying to draw all the audiences. I have to believe the people who know Sam Elliott don’t know Lil Nas, and the people who know Lil Nas don’t know Sam Elliott.”

Google Trends reported Bounty was the top of its Super Bowl list of most searched brands during the game. The maker of paper towels was part of a Procter & Gamble spot featuring actress Sofia Vergara and highlighted numerous Procter products from Old Spice to Mr. Clean and Olay. In a similar mashup, Walmart featured 12 characters from a wide range of TV shows and movies to promote its grocery store pickup service. Both ads were first time spots for Walmart and Procter & Gamble.

Also fifth on Google’s Trends list was the Jeep commercial with actor Bill Murray reprising his role in the movie “Groundhog Day” on Groundhog Day Sunday. The spot won USA Today’s annual Ad Meter, which ranks ads by consumer preference.

Whitler said that rather than promoting their corporate social responsibility credentials, advertisers this year went back to simply selling their products. “They’re getting away from issues ads, because frankly they don’t do well,” she said. “People want to be entertained.”

GLAAD, an advocacy representing LGTBQ interests, celebrated what it described as an “unprecedented'' 11 Super Bowl spots for their inclusivity, describing a “rainbow wave over the Super Bowl,” according to a statement.

One ad from flavored water brand Hint left viewers with a question mark about how a pie eating contest ended. It concluded with two men covered in berry pie, leaning in, perhaps for a kiss, or to lick some pie off each other’s faces.

In a sign that the motor industry is headed in a new direction, there were a number of ads for electric vehicles and features that don’t need humans. Those included the GMC Hummer EV and Audi’s spot for its e-tron chargeable car featuring “Game of Thrones” actress Maisie Williams singing “Let it Go" in a likely reference to letting go of gas-powered cars. Another ad for Hyundai showed several Boston-accented celebrities talking about its “Smaht Pahk” automatic parking feature.

Regardless of whether Super Bowl ads work for advertisers, the NFL’s biggest game of the year remains a popular place for brands to spend money to try to get their messages across to millions.