Why This Year’s Super Bowl Ads Were Nothing to Celebrate

Much of the country looks to the Super Bowl each year not just as the pinnacle of the football season, but also as the high point in advertising. Given the costs associated with buying a Super Bowl ad, a tradition has been long established where brands apply their top creativity and resources to create an ad that will resonate with the millions of viewers. This year’s ads, however, were comparatively underwhelming and for one good reason: most of the advertisers made the mistake of positioning their companies as the focal point or “celebrity” of their ads, rather than the “chief celebrant” of their brand community.

In today’s commercial marketplace, social media is an active and tireless dialogue between brands and consumers, and companies have been forced to recognize that they can no longer tell consumers want to think, do, or buy. Instead, they need to ensure they are relevant and meaningful to consumers’ lives by positioning their company and products as representing the values they share. As such, marketing has shifted away from advertising in the traditional sense to advocacy and activism, with many tops brands playing leading roles in movements that address pressing cultural issues. We recently saw this play out clearly with Nike’s anniversary spot featuring Colin Kaepernick and also, as a cautionary tale, with Gillette’s recent spot that took on the cultural issue of toxic masculinity.

Despite the deep body of evidence to support this shift that has played out across social media in the last several years, the majority of advertisers in this year’s Super Bowl chose to talk about their company or their products exclusively. That is not to diminish the relevance or value of their products to consumers’ lives, but it establishes a largely self-serving and transactional dynamic with consumers that left many responding to this year’s ads with a resounding, “Meh.” One might argue that these companies feared a potential backlash to taking a stand on a controversial issue given the furor around the recent Gillette ad and many of the ads in last year’s Super Bowl, but playing it safe came at the cost of a deeper emotional connection with consumers who would then drive earned media for brands by sharing the ads across their social media. In contrast, all of these brands had the opportunity to communicate what they stood for and their role in the world and to position their companies and products as social proof of those commitments. It’s this values alignment that ensures today’s brands command the attention, loyalty and purchases of consumers that then celebrate those same brands.

The notable exceptions to this shortcoming were the ads by the NFL itself, Kia, Google, Yellow Tail, Microsoft and Verizon — all of whom showed their brand playing a meaningful role by celebrating some aspect of the lives of others. Importantly, this does not mean a brand needs to be sanctimonious or idealistic in its marketing, and there is no doubt great entertainment appeal and awareness generated by the pervasive presence of BUD Light that showcased a powerful collaboration with cultural touchstone Game of Thrones. But the majority of ads left viewers unmoved or unimpressed by the sales pitches and celebrity sightings at a time when viewership of the event itself has reached a ten year low.

At the heart of this issue is the way in which companies approach their marketing during the Super Bowl and beyond. To succeed in today’s marketplace, a company must first define its purpose, or why it exists, so that it can inform all communications across all marketing touchpoints. Second, it must reframe its messaging from being self-directed to community-focused so that brands engage their consumers and co-create marketing with them to ensure they not only capture the attention of consumers, but also inspire them to share it with others. Finally, a brand must do more than limit its effort to advertising alone. When speaking to the role the company seeks to play in the world, it must put skin in the game and demonstrate the authenticity of that commitment through the real world efforts it makes to justify and support its stated claims. A great example of this was the Kia brand, which not only aired a spot celebrating the “Great Unknowns” in contrast to the celebrity synonymous with the Super Bowl, but also made sixteen grants of $5000 each over 4 years in the education of students because that is where the money of the brand is best spent.

Tentpole events in the national calendar such as the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Golden Globes are already struggling to maintain viewership and engage the next generation of viewers. If the Super Bowl and its advertisers are to reverse the current viewership, marketers must celebrate their customers and demonstrate the positive role their brand is playing in people’s lives, rather than their company or products alone. Brands may yet be afraid to take such a risk, but they will hate being irrelevant even more. For today’s consumers and the younger demographics that will determine which brands succeed see themselves as partners, collaborators and co-creators of movements that improve lives and our future. When companies embrace this strategy, they will not only command the attention of viewers but reap the benefits of building a movement that scales both business growth and impact.