An Average Super Bowl Ad Packs In More Celebrities Than Ever. When Is Enough Enough?

A breaking point could be coming, or maybe it's here already

Announcing! Brandweek is headed to Phoenix, Arizona this September 23–26. Join us there to explore the future of marketing, discover cutting-edge strategies and network with the best in the business.

If you’re looking for evidence of how deeply celebrities have permeated Super Bowl ads, let’s make a random comparison.

In 1992, Pepsi aired what’s still considered one of the Big Game’s best spots: Supermodel Cindy Crawford (scarcely contained by a white tank top) drives into a gas station and sips a Pepsi from the vending machine while two boys look on in pre-adolescent stupefaction.

Now let’s choose another beverage ad—Michelob Ultra from 2022. This one’s set in a bowling alley and Crawford’s not in it. But here’s who is: Serena Williams, Tony Romo, Alex Morgan, Canelo Alvarez, Nneka Ogwumike, Jimmy Butler, Brian Cox, Peyton Manning, Brooks Koepka and Steve Buscemi.

Notice a difference in the celebrity count? Of course you do. In recent years, it’s become impossible not to. Not only are there more celebrities in Super Bowl spots overall, but there are also more of them packed into each of those spots.

Consider Sabra’s 2020 ad “How We ‘Muss,’” which featured no fewer than 19 famous faces (including Doug the Pug) demonstrating their technique for getting hummus onto a cracker.

This year, the spot for Paramount+ will feature a stable of Hollywood regulars (Patrick Stewart, Drew Barrymore), one ’90s rock band (Creed) and bigwigs who aren’t even real (sorry, Peppa Pig). Total celeb count: 11.

Veteran creative Steve Merino, CCO at ad shop Aloysius Butler & Clark (AB&C), sums the trend up this way: “In the ’80s, if you saw a celebrity in an ad, it was, ‘Oh my gosh!’ Now? It’s table stakes.”

Where’d all these people come from?

How’d we reach the point where a Super Bowl ad’s somehow no good unless it has a ballroom’s worth of stars? It’s taken the convergence of multiple economic and cultural forces to get us here.

Start with a basic truth: If a TV spot is an engine, a celebrity is a supercharger. “The pros of using talent are obvious—an automatic increase in brand awareness,” said Courtney Worthman, evp of brand and agency partnerships at celebrity matchmaking firm Burns Entertainment. “Ads with talent have much better recall.”

And better engagement, too. “For the past three years, our data has shown consumers are 25% more likely to engage with a brand online during the Super Bowl when there’s a featured celebrity,” said Kevin Krim, president and CEO of impact measurement platform EDO.

And it follows, inferentially at least, that if one celeb delivers engagement, a few of them will deliver still more.

Another factor in play is a variant of an old adage: in for a penny, in for a pound. “If you’re shelling out $7 million for 30-second ad and you’re paying I don’t know how much in production, having a celebrity—or two or three or five—is probably worth it,” said independent media consultant Brad Adgate. After all, this is the big time, right?

Finally, there’s the fact that the Super Bowl is the last true mass-market media event left in the fractured America of today—and if a brand aims to keep 111 million viewers entertained, it helps to have mass-market entertainers. As brand consultant David J. Deal puts it: “Americans are addicted to celebrities, and the Super Bowl is our ultimate fix.”

Sick of all these stars yet?

But all this celebrity stuffing raises a specter, too. If viewers become inured to, say, 10 famous faces in a single ad, does that mean that following year’s ad needs 12 faces? 15? When does it all become too much?

Depending on who you ask, that day is a long way off—or it might be here already.

“You do run the risk where you get immune to it, or it doesn’t add any value to add messaging or the product,” Adgate said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet. I think [advertisers will] keep doing it.”

Probably. But Merino believes that they should think twice. The Super Bowl, he said, is already suffering from what he calls the “cameo-ification” of advertising—too many celebs poking their heads into every spot. “It’s already jumped the shark,” he said.

“If you look over history and the ads that have usually ranked the best—very few of them are a smorgasbord of celebrities.”

And he’s right. Look back over the most popular Super Bowl ads and you’ll see surprisingly few VIPs.

For example, Coca-Cola’s legendary 1980 spot “Hey Kid, Catch!” features only Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Mean Joe Greene and a young fan. Nike’s classic “Hare Jordan” from 1993 stars only Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny. Other celebrated spots—including 1995’s famous Budweiser frogs, EDS’s “Cat Herders” from 2000 and E*Trade’s talking babies from 2008—have no famous faces at all.

There’d better be a good explanation for this

Since the trend of celebrity-packing isn’t likely to disappear tomorrow, however, experts point out that the real issue isn’t so much casting too many stars in a given ad—it’s casting them without a good reason.

In 2022, Toyota ran a spot called “The Joneses.” A canny riff on “keeping up with the Joneses,” the ad featured some notable personages, all with the same surname, tooling around in their Toyota Tundras: Leslie Jones, Rashida Jones, Tommy Lee Jones. (And, in the kicker, Nick Jonas—phonetically close enough—at whom Tommy Lee Jones scowls, “Try to keep up, whoever you are.”)

Sure, the ad was an example of celebrity stuffing, but it was also one where the theme demanded it: a bunch of unknowns named Jones wouldn’t have worked.

According to Jason Schragger, chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, which created the ad, the goal was to achieve a “symbiosis” between the plot and the stars: “The idea is better with the celebrity—but the celebrity plays within the brand universe,” he said.

In Worthman’s view, Nissan’s 2023 Super Bowl spot—for which she helped to line up the talent—operated along similar lines. Everyone in the ad had a thematically sound reason for being there, she said.

In the minute-long spot, Schitt’s Creek co-creator and star Eugene Levy borrows the keys to a new Nissan Z from Brie Larson (who is Nissan’s brand ambassador). On the streets of Los Angeles, Levy burns past Catherine O’Hara (his Schitt’s Creek costar) and, having been turned into a superhero by the car’s twin-turbocharged V6, he recruits Danai Gurira and Dave Bautista (both superhero film vets) to fight off various and sundry evildoers.

“When you have creative that makes sense with the talent you’re choosing, that’s the bullseye,” Worthman said. But “if you’re loading up celebrities for the sake of celebrity, that’s a gimmick that maybe worked 10 years ago.”

But not today—or not, at any rate, if a gimmick is all that it is. As Merino summed it up: “Unless you have a good idea, a celebrity isn’t going to make a bad idea good.”

Enjoying Adweek's Content? Register for More Access!