The 2019 Super Bowl Ads: Who Unleveled the Playing Field?

By now, we’re at the point where we know what to expect from the Super Bowl ads.

Before the game, you could have jotted down a list of what you thought you would see, based on history.  That list probably would have included:

  • Celebrities galore!
  • Animals (especially dogs) at their most undeniably adorable
  • People or animals doing silly dances
  • Inspiring Statements of High-Minded Purpose
  • The unusual, the surreal, the flat-out bizarre (with or without reason)
  • Production values to rival a summer blockbuster film

You can make this kind of list for almost any category.  Sometimes, it’s comically easy to do.  And the more “tried, true and expected” the items on that list, the more ripe that category is for some rule-breaking.

So who broke the rules with this year’s Super Bowl ads?

As a guy who’s worked with or on challenger brands for my 28-year career, that’s the lens through which I approached this year’s crop.  And that’s what this piece is about: The brands that unleveled the playing field, played to their strengths, and zigged where others would have zagged.

This is to say that I don’t put much stock in ratings devices like USA Today’s AdMeter, which will receive a news cycle of its own on Monday morning.  The AdMeter essentially measures the degree to which viewers liked an ad.  And it’s very easy to make an ad that people like – a funny ad, an entertaining ad, a heartwarming ad – that doesn’t do a damn thing to build either your brand or your sales.

When you break rules strategically and meaningfully, you see results.  People don’t just smile at your ad, they take action.  You change hearts, minds and behaviors.

Which Super Bowl ads got the job done, and which fell short?  Let’s sort several of the ads into three categories.

BIG PLAYS

Expensify opened its spot looking like a standard-issue Super Bowl ad: 2 Chainz in a big-dollar production.  Adam Scott then interrupted with the comic relief, but with a point.  Expensify is an app that means to make expense reports easy, so there’s a real point of difference.  And “You weren’t born to do expenses” is a line that will resonate with anyone who has ever spent hours filling expense reports out.  Expensify announced its presence on a big stage by showing what it does for you, and that’s an excellent starting point.

Pepsi Super Bowl Steve CarellI loved seeing Pepsi embrace its #2 status.  “Is Pepsi okay?” is a phrase that’s probably uttered millions of times a day in restaurants, and Pepsi’s reply leveraged this fact well.  Steve Carell, as usual, was perfection.

Jason Bateman was also perfectly cast as the elevator operator in the Hyundai ad, taking riders down past a bunch of horrible floors – Root Canal, Jury Duty, “The Talk” – before arriving at Car Shopping.  Hyundai Shopper Assurance looks to fix some of the pain in car shopping, and this was a humorous illustration of a legit insight.

Microsoft Adaptive Controller Super Bowl
Photo Credit: Adweek

Historically, advertising has not been Microsoft’s strong suit, but in this Super Bowl, it gave us one of the best ads in its history, period.  By showcasing its adaptive controller for gaming, Microsoft presented itself credibly as an innovator.  The spot was emotional without feeling manipulative, and “When everybody plays, we all win” tied up the spot nicely.

I’ve been a fan of Michelob Ultra’s advertising (though certainly not the beer) for years, in large part because it works.  Its Super Bowl ad continued to evolve this campaign, without falling prey to the expected “Super Bowl ad” tricks.  “It’s only worth it, if you can enjoy it” (man, I hate that unnecessary comma) is an on-brand message.  And the robot is a smart proxy for the “fitness Nazis” that most people don’t want to be.  (I liked the Mich Ultra Pure Gold spot MUCH less, since it walked away from all the equities the brand has built.)

Bumble Serena Williams
Photo Credit: People

Bumble is the dating app where only the woman can message the man first when a male/female match is made.  So “Make the first move in work, in love, in life” is a credible message, and who better to deliver that message than Serena Williams?

SHORT GAINS

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of Bud Light’s advertising, and I’d happily go to my grave without hearing the phrase “Dilly Dilly” ever again.  But I’m not the target demographic.  In the Super Bowl, it was pleasantly surprising to see Bud Light call out Miller Lite and Coors Light for brewing their beers with corn syrup.  (Though I also felt the first spot made the point well enough, and the next two were unneeded.)  This was a fact-based challenge to its two major competitors, and I’m curious to watch how this unfolds.

Devour Super Bowl
Photo Credit: Eater

You can’t say “porn” in a Super Bowl ad, apparently, so Devour pre-released a 60-second “uncensored” version of its ad to release online.  While I love the idea of breaking a rule and capitalizing on the buzz, the online version went a little too far in making its point, in ways I won’t describe here.  (It also got a ton of views.)  The actual Super Bowl spot paid off the concept just as well.

Mint Mobile went for sheer memorability, spending more time on the “chunky-style milk” concept than its price-based message.  People no doubt laughed, and maybe remembered it, but will enough people act on it to justify the cost?  Hard to say.

Bon & Viv Super Bowl
Photo Credit: YouTube

Bon & Viv spiked seltzer announced its points of difference clearly, and the visual look is distinctive within the category.  But man, that “Shark Tank” gag was weak.

I’m torn on Olay, with Sarah Michelle Gellar.  The horror-movie imagery breaks the vocabulary of the beauty category.  But it wasn’t a hugely funny payoff and the #KillerSkin message just barely landed, if at all.

Wix Super Bowl Karlie Kloss
Photo Credit: Adweek

When many brands showed you a short film, Wix gave you a product demo hosted by Karlie Kloss.  One could question the ad buy – could $5mm have been better used to pulse this ad out throughout the year?  This spot won’t show up anywhere near the top of the AdMeter, but if you’re in the market for a new or updated website, Wix made it look easy.

LOSS OF YARDAGE

Audi’s spot was a standard-issue “Super Bowl ad,” disrupting itself with a gag that was neither meaningful nor pleasant.  This same execution could be used to launch just about any performance car, which is to say Audi’s messaging of electrifying its fleet probably didn’t land.

Budweiser Super Bowl Dad
Photo Credit: USA Today

Budweiser went back to the well: The Clydesdales plus an unassailably adorable dog.  Can’t miss, right?  But these greatly outweighed the message of “Now brewed with wind power.”  Do consumers care?  If they do, why not tell us more beyond the tagline?  This felt like either a strategic or a creative miss.

Planters said that it’s “Always there in crunch time.”  But it didn’t need Charlie Sheen and Alex Rodriguez to make its point, unless Planters is positioning itself as the brand for those with a history of ill-advised decisions.

Doritos Super Bowl Chance the Rapper Backstreet Boys
Photo Credit: Monsters and Critics

Doritos gave us Chance the Rapper with the Backstreet Boys.  (Target audience: Anyone born since 1978.)  You’ll remember the ad, but probably not the flavor of Doritos that was being advertised.

Amazon Alexa also loaded up on the celebs.  But the “not everything makes the cut” concept may have sold the fears about Alexa more than the benefits.

Finally, I’m going to have nightmares, for a long time, about that TurboTax “robochild.”

That’s my take.  What’s yours?  What are the ads that you think got the job done?  (Not to be confused with those that got the most laughs at the Super Bowl party.)  Leave a comment or drop me an email to let me know.

 

Here’s my take on the last two years of Super Bowl advertising:

Six Important Questions for This Year’s Super Bowl Advertisers

The Super Bowl Ads: 9 Inexpensive Lessons for the Rest of Us

 

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2019 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

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