Why Amazon and Walmart Played It Safe at the Super Bowl

Social conversation was largely positive, but analysts say the brands likely didn't make a lasting impression

walmart and amazon
Analysts agree that 2020 was not the year to challenge Super Bowl viewers. Walmart, Amazon
Headshot of Lisa Lacy

For the first time ever, retail rivals Amazon and Walmart both aired ads in the Super Bowl. And while Big Game postmortems say Amazon’s ad resonated more with viewers, analysts say it’s possible neither brand made much of a lasting impression, in part because they both played it safe.

The retailers even used similar tactics: Amazon, for the third consecutive year, leaned on a familiar combination of celebrities interacting with its digital assistant Alexa, while Walmart picked up a theme from a 2019 pre-kickoff ad full of nods to pop culture.

Amazon’s spot, which featured comedian Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, actress Portia de Rossi, ultimately ranked No. 3 on Adweek’s list of The 10 Best Super Bowl 2020 Ads. Amazon also outranked Walmart on USA Today’s Ad Meter, although the ecommerce platform fell to No. 7 in 2020 after coming in at No. 2 in 2019. Viewers ranked Walmart’s ad 11 spots behind Amazon at No. 18.

According to social analytics platform Brandwatch, which looked at public Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram pages between 6:30 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. ET, Amazon was the fourth-most mentioned brand with 39,000 references, while Walmart was 10th with 15,000. Neither was among the top 10 most-mentioned Twitter handles.

“When discussing Walmart, people generally liked the commercial,” said Kellan Terry, senior manager of communications at Brandwatch. “Walmart’s social conversation spiked the minute after it aired with more than 1,000 reactionary mentions. Fans really appreciated the sci-fi aspect of the commercial. Around 63.73% of Walmart’s sentiment-categorized mentions were positive during the game.”

Amazon, meanwhile, drove slightly better conversation with 67.27% of mentions being positive, Brandwatch found.

“While there was no massive spike in Amazon’s conversation, it enjoyed a steady conversation through the game,” Terry added.

In addition, AI-based TV analytics platform Mensio found Amazon, along with Hard Rock International and Pepsi, received the highest average Brand Prominence Score, which measures brand exposure.

“Hard Rock, which holds stadium naming rights, earned its prominence through in-stadium signage, whereas exposure for Amazon and Pepsi were highlighted by recurrent digital overlays on the telecast,” according to a Mensio statement.

The company found those digital overlays, such as messaging about stats powered by Amazon Web Services, gave Amazon an additional 34 seconds of exposure beyond its ad.

Brands certainly didn’t have an easy task this year.

Over the past decade, Kate Muhl, lead consumer insight analyst at Gartner, said consumers have increasingly hunkered down in self-protection mode, which she called “spiritual cocooning,” as values like security, safety and serenity have been on the rise—with a particular uptick in the last few years.

“[Consumers] are much more likely now to say they are alone, afraid and distrustful,” Muhl said. “The world is scary and has intractable problems, and they need relaxation and serenity.”

And, per Muhl, the smartest Super Bowl ads spoke directly to this state of mind.

“Amazon and Walmart, in both cases, I think they made safe choices to be in the Super Bowl by understanding this isn’t a time to challenge people,” Muhl said. “It’s not a time to do something big and bold.”

That being said, she noted it may be difficult for Walmart to stand out using “fairly neutral nostalgia markers” when so many other advertisers did something similar.

“They certainly wouldn’t put anybody off with what they’ve built because they stayed in their [lane with] what consumers are looking for and what helps them feel good,” Muhl said. “There was not an off note, and God knows brands can hit off notes.”

But whether either brand, especially Walmart, will have lasting impact is debatable. Amazon, on the other hand, “seems to recognize the uneasiness people have about the wide range of impacts Amazon is having culturally,” according to Muhl.

Therefore, she said a win for Amazon would be to humanize its technology and make it seem useful and innocuous.

“Using history and goofy humor and Ellen, who is an inherently loved and trusted cultural figure, goes a long way to not upset people and humanize the service,” Muhl said. “But … if you have to leverage the brand of Ellen, which has warmth and goodness baked in, and then you make a Dilly-Dilly-style historical play … all of your emotional equity is borrowed. I wonder how far that goes.”

At the same time, Muhl said Amazon made the right move, recognizing that consumers are in a “defensive crouch” and leveraging DeGeneres.

“Anything they did that would highlight the technology inside or the algorithmic underbelly of what they do is just not going to make people feel good about the brand right now, and certainly not in a Super Bowl context,” Muhl said. “I think what they did was smart given the context.”

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@lisalacy lisa.lacy@adweek.com Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.