Why So Many Super Bowl Ads Are Obsessed With Movies

It's an easy way to leverage nostalgia, but a challenge to truly make the brand the star

bill murray laying in bed looking like he suddenly woke up
Jeep's loving homage and sequel of sorts to Groundhog Day is just one of several movie-themed Super Bowl spots this year.
Jeep

It’s Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney again, thanks to Jeep. Mountain Dew Zero Sugar recreated The Shining in eerie detail. Meanwhile, Walmart welcomes a litany of Hollywood sci-fi favorites ranging from Flash Gordon to the Arrival aliens.

Referencing movies isn’t just a trend in 2020 Super Bowl ads; it’s the trend in 2020 Super Bowl ads.

But why?

Certainly, it’s not a new approach. Several of the most beloved Super Bowl ads of all time are centered on popular movies or franchises. Volkswagen’s The Force, featuring an adorably underpowered Darth Vader, was a Death Star-sized hit when it debuted in 2011. And in terms of movie recreations, FedEx and BBDO set the bar in 2003 with “Desert Island,” which offered an alternate ending for Tom Hanks’ 2000 blockbuster Cast Away.

But this year, the trend is offering up a multiplex worth of big-budget ad concepts. As I write this a few hours before kickoff, we’ve already seen eight ads that heavily draw on movies, and more are sure to come.

Jeep and Mountain Dew are the most direct with their lovingly detailed recreations of Groundhog Day and The Shining, while Walmart and Discover take the tack of squeezing in as many references as possible. Audi set its ad to Frozen’s “Let It Go,” while Squarespace’s Winona Ryder homecoming to Winona, Minn., feels like a scene right out of 1996’s Fargo. Facebook, meanwhile, caps off its celebration of rock-themed Facebook Groups with a double-A-list callback to Rocky.

The most obvious reason for hinging your Super Bowl ad on a movie is the same one used for several other common concepts: borrowed interest.

Telling a new story from scratch in 60 seconds, much less 30, is an uphill battle for any advertiser, especially in the general chaos (on the screen or on the couches) around the Super Bowl. How will you get the audience to care or even understand who the characters are? And if you can pull that off, how will you make a brand the star without being ham-handedly sales-y?

The easy solution, if you’ll forgive a mixed sports metaphor, is to start your story on second base in the consumer’s mind. If the viewer already knows a celebrity or storyline and you can insert your brand right into it, you’ve already leap-frogged past the hardest obstacle.

For decades, celebrity cameos have been the most frequent and overused implement in the Super Bowl toolbox, with the quality of how the celebs are used varying widely. Some feel that fans have grown tired of Super Bowl ads that lean too heavily on the premise of celebrities in wacky situations.

"This year’s trend is a way of upping the ante, essentially using major entertainment properties as characters to play with to keep things fresh."
—Chris Beresford-Hill, CCO, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York

“The Super Bowl has always over-indexed on spots featuring entertainers, usually putting them in a funny context or making a joke at their expense,” said Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. “Over the years, this has become a bit expected, and ad people are always trying to find the next thing.”

Beresford-Hill’s agency embraced the movie theme in a way that combined star power with nostalgia while still being obsessive about craft: Mountain Dew Zero Sugar’s recreation of scenes from The Shining, this time starring Bryan Cranston and Tracee Ellis Ross.

While Jeep opted to keep Groundhog’s original cast in the mix, including the notoriously elusive and ad-averse Bill Murray, the automaker still found a way to put its product, the 2020 Jeep Gladiator, front and center in the storyline. Similarly, Mountain Dew deftly positions its product at the center of an ad that manages to be both a loving tribute to a Hollywood classic and a straightforward sales tool.

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