Why Brands Played It Safe and Turned This Year’s Super Bowl Into a Nostalgia Fest

Few ads stood out from the crowd

Stella Artois was a prime example of an ad soaked in nostalgia. Stella Artois
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The Dude abides—and this year, most brands were content to do the same.

Viewers looking for the equivalent of Tide’s 2018 Super Bowl takeover were disappointed. So were those hoping for brands to take bold stances on sociopolitical issues beyond basic female empowerment and homages to everyday Americans.

Beyond some exceptions—like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale promo, which referenced the 1984 Ronald Reagan “Morning in America” ad—most brands played it safe with humorous or sentimental spots, many of which centered on decades-old names like Sex and the City, The Backstreet Boys and Andy Warhol.

“I was sitting there last night thinking, this is quite safe, [especially] compared to the last two years when brands took the moral high ground,” said TBWA Worldwide global CCO Chris Garbutt.

In 2017, advertisers like Expedia, Budweiser and 84 Lumber directly address the red-hot topic of immigration directly after President Trump signed an executive order banning individuals from several primarily Muslim nations. No ad went so far this year.

"I was sitting there last night thinking, this is quite safe, [especially] compared to the last two years when brands took the moral high ground."
-TBWA Worldwide global CCO Chris Garbutt

Zambezi partner and CCO Gavin Lester said that brands “clearly stayed away from pressing societal issues or anything that felt remotely political” because they “recognized that viewers could use a break, some levity and fun” amid the all-consuming political coverage we encounter every day.

“Advertisers usually borrow blast-from-the-past celebrities for cheap laughs—sorry, Backstreet Boys,” added R/GA’s U.S. head of strategy Tom Morton. But he argued that Stella Artois’ Big Game effort starring The Dude, Carrie Bradshaw and The Most Interesting Man in the World successfully “reset the nostalgia clock” to deliver one simple message: change your drink order.

Many agency executives agreed with Garbutt’s assertion that comedic efforts failed to stand out, despite high viewer rankings for Pepsi, Amazon and M&M’s. Johannes Leonardo group creative director Samira Ansari critiqued Devour’s food porn campaign for “making light of addiction” and said most who don’t work in marketing “completely missed” the Dos Equis mascot’s Stella cameo.

Jason Musante, CCO at IPG’s Huge, said “three things perfectly intersected” on Super Bowl Sunday: brands targeting older audiences, looking at the past “through rose-colored glasses” and earning attention with less costly external stunts like the Skittles Broadway musical.

Who did advertisers think was watching the Super Bowl last night? Definitely not 20 to 30-somethings,” he said, calling the Reagan reference and appearances by Jason Bateman and Sarah Jessica Parker “nostalgia plays for the 40-plus crowd.”

"Who did advertisers think was watching the Super Bowl last night? Definitely not 20 to 30-somethings."
-Jason Musante, CCO, Huge

On that note, Budweiser’s wind power spot featured a classic hippie-era anthem from Bob Dylan. “If that ad had run three years ago, it would have hit a chord,” Ansari said. “But it just got lost amid the corn syrup banter.”

Of course the brand messages weren’t all fluff.

There were a few worthy, emotionally driven spots,” Garbutt told Adweek. “Because there were fewer of them, they cut through more than the funny stuff.”

For example, he praised more somber efforts from Verizon and Kia that respectively focused on first responders and employees of the automaker’s factory in West Point, Ga.—though he called the latter effort “derivative” of Chrysler’s “Made in Detroit” campaign. “It may be a bit of a stretch,” he added, “but this year’s Super Bowl was about celebrating being alive and being American.”

Strategically speaking, Morton thought the game’s big winners encouraged consumers to view them differently. “Google turned Translate from a widget to a power for good,” he said. “Microsoft reclaimed the role of online gaming. Bud Light made drinkers rethink what goes into light beer.”

Creatives were most sharply divided on Burger King’s #EatLikeAndy, which was the lowest-ranked ad in the game, according to USA Today’s Admeter.

"The gloves are off. The days of buying attention are over."

Ansari, who had recently seen the source film in a Whitney Museum Warhol exhibit, described that effort as “cool footage but a little too easy,” adding, “Even for me as an ad snob, it didn’t connect the dots.”

Burger King will definitely be remembered, but I don’t know if that’s good enough,” said Garbutt. “You want to be loved.”

For Musante, this year’s game proved that the democratization of media has made Super Bowl ads less necessary for brands. No effort better embodied this fact than the mysterious Instagram egg, which turned its organic growth into a paid partnership with Hulu and an unexpected mental health PSA.

It’s a fun time. The gloves are off,” Musante said. “The days of buying attention are over.”

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@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.