From Jeep's groundhog to Tide's montage: the 5 keys for making Super Bowl ads great
What do the successful Super Bowl ads of the past have in common? From Jeep to Tide to Huggies, System1’s Tom Ewing explains why some of our favorite ads worked so well.
Media planning in the 2020s is a constant flux of shifting platforms and audiences. Some commentators assumed the Super Bowl would be caught up in this, predicting that its annual TV advertising frenzy would die down and begin to lose relevance.
If anything, though, the opposite has happened. Super Bowl ad prices remain sky-high, and the fixture has gained in power by being the one solid, mass-eyeball moment in a more fluid and unpredictable world.
Super Bowl LVII will be no different. The question is - will advertisers change things up much on the creative front? We looked at the last five years of Super Bowl ads and found five trends we expect to continue in 2023, from perennial winning tactics to newer effectiveness plays. For each of them we’ve picked a top-scoring Super Bowl ad to show what good looks like.
1. Celebrities, of course
Celebrity cameos have always been part of game day ads but the last few years have seen them truly dominate, to the point where a Super Bowl ad watch feels like an Oscar Night party.
This won’t change in 2023, as celebrity appearances tick several boxes for the Super Bowl marketer. They make an ad feel prestigious and special. They create conversation. They can offer valuable moments of surprise.
But celebrity appearances aren’t a magic wand. To get the most from them, you need to use your guest stars well, and that usually means presenting an exaggerated or comic version of what the star is known for. Star power alone won’t cut it.
In 2020, Jeep scored a 5-Star Super Bowl ad by becoming the first brand to persuade Bill Murray to revisit his classic Groundhog Day character. The brand got the most out of Murray, with a terrific performance including plenty of movie callbacks and an on-brand twist. It’s still the highest scoring car ad of the 20s, and a perfect example of how to use a celebrity well.
2. Shiny new tech
Silicon Valley’s position as the frontier of innovation is increasingly reflected in Super Bowl ads. A Super Bowl buy is a big, brash way for a start-up to announce itself to the world, though such plays rarely leave audiences happy. 2022’s rash of NFT and crypto ads got dreadful scores, an example of where the crowd turned out to be particularly wise.
But there’s a better reason to spotlight cool tech in your ads - it’s a way of showing people something they haven’t seen before, creating surprise, delight and all-important cut through on the night. This year’s hot trend is generative AI, and we’d expect a few ads to reference that - or claim to have used it.
The best tech-based ads mix a healthy dose of fun in with the cool, though. Sam Adams’ regional 2022 ad was one of last year’s very best, mixing local pride with a wow-factor and plenty of laughs. It showed Boston Dynamics robots - the viral stars of dozens of YouTube and TikTok videos - getting down and partying thanks to the beer. Good publicity for both brands, and a great showcase for tech in ads.
3. Diversity and inclusion
Despite the grumblings of a few culture warriors, diversity and inclusion in advertising isn’t going away. The reason? It’s effective. Our Feeling Seen USA report showed that even for top name brands like Apple and Coke, their ads themed around diversity with inclusive casting performed better than the average for those brands’ commercials.
Far from alienating a mainstream audience, ads showing authentic lives and stories from different communities give viewers what they’re craving: something new and interesting. Then on top of that there’s often a ‘diversity dividend’ as the ads score even higher among the individual group.
Microsoft is a brand with a strong history of making great, inclusive advertising. The “We All Win” campaign topped our Super Bowl rankings in 2019, giving gamers with disabilities a moment in the spotlight. They talked about how much Microsoft’s adaptive controller technology makes a difference to their lives and lets them share their hobby with friends. It’s inclusive in the best way - authentic voices getting the opportunity to be heard and giving us the privilege of sharing their joy.
4. Old reliables (babies, pets and family)
Surprise - when allied to happiness - is one of the most effective Super Bowl plays. But not every effective ad needs to be surprising. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that Super Bowl LVII will have plenty of ads that put babies, puppies, kittens and doting parents and grandparents in starring roles. They won’t win many awards, but people like to see them and always will.
Even this perennial tactic can backfire, though. Make your ad too cozy, or too detached from the brand itself, and you risk coming in low on short-term Spike Rating or on Brand Fluency. Let’s face it, you’re not going to have the cute puppy space all to yourself. A lesser execution can mean your ad and brand get lost.
A diaper ad is an unusual Super Bowl chart-topper. But Huggies’ ad, “Welcome to the World”, was the top scoring of the 2021 event. It was full of cute babies - but it wasn’t just about the babies. An entertaining voiceover and some great direction brought the idea of babies navigating their new world to charming life. For the first Super Bowl after the Covid pandemic brought normal life to a crashing halt, this focus on the future was a perfect antidote to all the uncertainty. Get the timing and execution right, and the corniest elements can feel fresh.
5. Going meta
No, not The Company Formerly Known As Facebook. The trend here is advertising that’s about advertising - ads that comment on, parody, or give the finger to the standard ad tropes, and grab attention and coverage for doing that.
From Coinbase’s floating QR code to Burger King’s borrowing an arthouse Warhol video, we’ve seen these tactics become a big part of the Super Bowl conversation. It’s a tempting ploy for a brand which wants to look smart, daring, or is just staking a claim to stripping away the typical marketing BS. But it’s also high risk. What goes down well in the advertising press won’t always translate to the public, and the brief buzz of conversation these ads generate doesn’t seem a great return on a $7 million price tag.
Get it right, though, and you might end up in the Super Bowl Hall of Fame. Tide’s 2018 “It’s A Tide Ad” kicked off this meta trend with its montage of cliched ads each just turning out to be for Tide. A brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, taking advantage of the captive Super Bowl audience and their partial attention. It dominated post-game conversation, swept the industry awards and scored 5-Stars in Test Your Ad. We’ve not seen anything quite as good since. But maybe 2023 will be the year we do.
Tom Ewing is head of marketing and market intelligence at System1.