Voices of the Super Bowl

Guest opinion contributors share insights and advice around the Big Game

two football players smiling and dancing surrounded by microphones
We asked our Voice contributors to share the lessons they've learned and trends they've noted from past Super Bowls. Photo Illustration: Trent Joaquin; Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

The Super Bowl is marketing’s biggest unofficial holiday—and for good reason. While there is no exact formula for what makes a Super Bowl ad a hit or miss, there are definitely things most major brands try to incorporate: cultural references, big-name celebrities and bonus points for making viewers laugh. At $5.6 million for a 30-second spot, it’s a lofty investment, but it’s one many brands have seen pay off.

Some of our guest contributors, including creatives behind some memorable campaigns, are sharing their insights into marketing during the Super Bowl, lessons learned from the hits and flops and looking at some of the more interesting trends we’ve seen in the past few decades.

Typically people try to avoid politics and other potentially divisive topics during a fun sports celebration, but no matter what your political perspective is, you’re likely to see something that resonates this year. Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg and President Donald Trump are going to be airing ads during the game. Alex Rakestraw, a senior strategist at creative agency Deutsch New York, points to how this could be an opportunity for brands to work in some humor—like “if a beer brand branded both … spots as “National Fridge-Run Moments.”

At digital agency Levelwing, CEO and co-founder Steve Parker Jr. writes about his experience in strategizing behind 10 Super Bowl spots over the past 13 years. Teasing the ads, releasing multiple iterations with Easter eggs and carrying the conversation started at the Super Bowl well into the following months, he writes, makes game day “an opportunity to be game year, providing a much bigger and more far-reaching opportunity than ever before.”

When marketers hit on a tactic that works for making a successful Super Bowl spot, you can be sure we’ll see it repeated over the next few years. But just because it was successful for one brand doesn’t mean it will be for another. Scott Conway, creative director at full-service agency Mering, notes five trends we see over and over again in Super Bowl ads that marketers can avoid—or at the very least, use as a jumping-off point. “If you’re lucky enough to work on a Super Bowl spot, take it as an opportunity to be a creative contrarian,” he writes.

So many notable Super Bowl spots from over the years resonate without relying on tropes. Not every Super Bowl ad needs a big celebrity, catchy top song or cheesy humor, but sometimes, those elements combine to truly entertain. Max McKeon, creative director at creative agency Colenso BBDO, discusses four that had just the right balance.

Remember Y2K? Most people can at least say they’ve heard of it, even if they don’t completely understand what the big fuss was about. Around the same time, the Super Bowl saw a unique trend: dot-com brands flooding in to snag a coveted Big Game slot. Debika Sihi, assistant professor of business at Southwestern University, goes through some of the companies that took out ads during the Super Bowl in the early 2000s such as Pets.com, which folded shortly after its “now-infamous dog sock puppet” character, and Computer.com, which spent all of its investor capital on Super Bowl spots that never made the money back. It begs the question: What will we be looking back on in 20 years as cringeworthy or era-shaping?

Jean-Francois Sacco, CCO at French creative agency Rosapark, shares that while the Super Bowl might not be the focal point for European marketers, they’re very much invested in the ads. It’s all about the brand competition for marketers. No one wants to take a break during the commercials lest they miss something major. They recognize that the ads in the game are going to show insights into coming trends and themes to expect for the coming year—and longer.

Jac Mansour, CCO at Pinnacle Marketing and Advertising Group, is part of the agency behind WeatherTech’s Super Bowl ads. The brand has had a slot in every Super Bowl for the past six years. Mansour talks about how the agency works with WeatherTech through each quarter of the year, like how a football game is played, to achieve a unique result each year.

A worst-case scenario on Super Bowl Sunday would be dedicating so much ad spend to create and launch a Super Bowl spot, only for your site to crash when consumers look you up that night. Having a slow load time on your site could be detrimental to your brand’s reputation, leading to Twitter chatter anyone would rather avoid. To ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible, Jennifer Curry, senior vp, global cloud services at cloud management company INAP, offers some advice to keep your IT team on high alert so consumers (and potential new consumers) aren’t disappointed.

Last year, in its fifth year in the Super Bowl, TurboTax Live shocked the world with its “RoboChild” spot. This year, it’s back with another ad—not with the robot boy—and Intuit Consumer Group Marketing senior vice president Mary-Ann Somers shares some lessons the brand has learned. “Maximizing a Super Bowl investment takes a lot of planning, collaboration, attention to detail and the balancing skills of an Olympic gymnast,” she writes.

By using celebrities and pop culture references in Super Bowl spots, brands have a better chance to connect with consumers. David Born, owner of licensing firm Born Licensing, talks about six brands’ use of entertainment IP this year—Pringles, Google, Facebook, Discover Card, Mountain Dew and Walmart—and the benefits they might see.

Think about the Super Bowl ads that most stick out in your memory. Did they lead you to use the brands’ products more? It’s likely that isn’t the case. It’s also likely the case, as Jae Goodman, CEO of creative agency Observatory, points out that some of the most memorable Super Bowl ads weren’t actually Super Bowl ads at all. Which is a bit of a problem, one that brands might want to give a second thought.

One thing Bumble noticed when creating its first Super Bowl spot last year was that there was a striking lack of women, especially women of color, involved in the creation of Big Game ads. So, Bumble decided to change that, making Serena Williams the focus of its ad and having female director A.V. Rockwell shoot it. And in the process of getting involved with the nation’s biggest advertising platform, the brand loudly declared its message of equality.

Katie Keating, co-founder and co-CCO at female-focused creative agency Fancy, envisions an ideal Super Bowl during which women are involved at every step of ad conceptualization and represented in a variety of ways. For too long, Super Bowl ads have focused too heavily on male preferences and been created with a male gaze. And while we’re making strides—see last year’s Olay and Bumble spots—we’re still not nearly close enough to have a more even distribution.

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@neco_ornot nicole.ortiz@adweek.com Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.