Super Bowl Ads Used Humor and Nostalgia to Distract From Today’s Divisive Climate

Some brands tried to touch on issues while remaining lighthearted

bill murray opening the door of a jeep on the left, someone dancing in a dessert in the middle, and someone drinking a mountain dew on the right
Tapping into humor and nostalgia was a consistent theme for many brands in this year's Super Bowl.
JEEP, Doritos, Mountain Dew

Key insights:

Super Bowl 2020 arrived amid a tense, divisive political and cultural climate. It’s unavoidable. President Donald Trump ran a political ad during the Super Bowl, as well as Democratic rival Michael Bloomberg.

With such weighty concerns in the background, it’s understandable that Super Bowl audiences may have looked to the biggest spectacle of the year for escapism, which advertisers largely seemed to pick up on. After mostly avoiding politics last year, two years after what may have been the most political Super Bowl year for advertisers ever, brands gravitated toward humor and nostalgia in 2020.

“There’s no question that by November it was clear that was the direction that was needed. After last year and a year of discussions that were divisive and polarizing, a lot of people were sitting around the creative table and saying we don’t want to touch that. People are exhausted from all of it,” Alixandra Barasch, assistant professor of marketing at the NYU Stern Business School, said.

Despite the intrusions of the night’s much-discussed political ads, the string of mostly lighthearted ads offered a respite from the relentless news cycle, even when touching upon sociopolitical issues.

Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business, added that audiences “don’t want the Super Bowl to become another Thanksgiving where you have to have uncomfortable political discussions.”

Branded humor

Pepsi and Frito-Lay utilized a humorous approach across many brands, tapping Bryan Cranston for a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for Mountain Dew Zero and MC Hammer to promote Cheetos Popcorn. Pepsi Zero Sugar took inspiration from classic Missy Elliott music videos featuring the artist while Frito-Lay enlisted Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott for a Doritos Cool Ranch dance-off.

Jeep took advantage of the Super Bowl falling on Groundhog Day to feature Bill Murray reprising his role from the 1993 comedy. The effort resonated with audiences, topping USA Today’s Ad Meter.

Barasch noted that ads utilized humor in a way that reflected the brands advertised, with most of them “in that space of being lighthearted but also conveying real consumer benefits,” rather than being funny in a way that has nothing to do with their product.

“I think brands have learned their lesson on that,” she said, and are “doing a good job of finding that middle ground of saying something useful but in a way that makes people smile or feel good.”

Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk,” which was No. 2 on USA Today’s Ad Meter, is perhaps the perfect example of this. It continuously reminded audiences of a key feature while building on a comedic theme. The aforementioned Groundhog Day effort for Jeep also placed the product at the center of its story.

Benefits and risks of nostalgia

Taylor noted that nostalgia was a “heavy theme” this year, adding that there’s evidence nostalgia is effective with millennial audiences.

“The reality is millennials are coming into their own,” he said, adding that they’re “in the era in their lives where they have a lot of responsibilities, in some ways taxing responsibilities” as an explanation for why “appeals to nostalgia and more carefree times in their lives” would prove effective.

Both Taylor and Barasch cautioned, however, that nostalgic references risked not being understood by a wide audience. Barasch pointed to Burger King’s “#EatLikeAndy” ad last year, featuring archival footage of Andy Warhol. The problem was that the majority of viewers didn’t know who he was.

“Nostalgia and use of celebrity are great tricks to get some borrowed interest, but you can also risk people only remembering the celebrity or the joke and not the brand,” cautioned John Kovacevich, executive creative director at San Francisco independent agency Duncan Channon. “Amazon, I think did a good job of using an aspect of their product and a repeatable joke over and over to drive home memorability.”

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