Super Bowl ads went for light humor. Not all succeeded

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This photo provided by Cadillac shows a scene from Cadillac’s 2021 Super Bowl NFL football spot. (Courtesy of Cadillac/Leo Burnett Detroit via AP)

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The mood on the field was tense during the Super Bowl as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trounced the Kansas City Chiefs. Off the field, brands sought to relieve the tension of the game — and the year — with lighthearted commercials stuffed with celebrities and nostalgic characters.

They aimed to connect to the estimated 100 million viewers who tune in to the Super Bowl broadcast each year.

Cadillac updated the classic 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands,” M&M’s enlisted Dan Levy to show how a bag of M&M’s given as an apology can help people come together. And Will Ferrell teamed with GM — and Awkwafina and Kenan Thompson — on a madcap cross-country dash to promote electric vehicles.

Perhaps the most striking effect: Virtually none of the ads featured people in masks, a public-health priority but also a grim reminder of the ongoing pandemic.

With so many light spots, advertisers that took a different approach were more likely to be remembered. Jeep aired a two-minute ad in the second half of the game starring Bruce Springsteen urging people to find common ground. Oat milk maker Oatly opted for going weird.

“The relentless stream of cheery ads made it tough for any of them to really stand out,” said Northwestern University marketing professor Tim Calkins.

AIMING TO ENTERTAIN

In an effort to be light, advertisers stuffed — and sometimes overstuffed — their ads with celebrities.

Cadillac enlisted “Call Me By Your Name” actor Timothée Chalamet to portray Edward Scissorhand’s son enjoying the Cadillac Lyriq’s hands-free “Super Cruise” technology. Winona Ryder revisited her role in the classic 1990 move as his mother.

Other ads combined celebrities with humor. Rocket Mortgage tapped comedian Tracy Morgan to show a family why being “pretty sure” doesn’t cut it in situations like eating questionable mushrooms, skydiving — and taking out a mortgage. State Farm showed Paul Rudd and Drake as commercial set stand-ins. And Hellmann’s enlisted comedian Amy Schumer as a “Fairy Godmayo” that helped a man deal with his leftovers.

TOUCHING ON POLITICS

Most ads steered clear of politics, but there were some notable exceptions.

Fiverr teased that its ad would feature Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the scene of an infamous Rudy Giuliani press conference during last year’s tumultuous election, raising the question whether the ad would be political or not.

It did not. Instead, the tongue-in-cheek ad was more about how small businesses can thrive with Fiverr. It featured Four Seasons Total Landscaping owner Marie Siravo talking about how to build a successful business with the help of Fiverr.

But the strongest political statement of the night came from Jeep’s two-minute ad featuring Bruce Springsteen. Even thought the Boss urged people to find common ground, the very idea of “unity” during this contentious election year has become polarizing.

“It’s no secret the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, servant and citizen, freedom and fear,” Springsteen intones, adding “we need the middle.”

FCA chief marketing officer Olivier Francois said it was worth taking the risk on a serious ad in order to create a “healing” commercial that will be remembered long after the game. “There’s a divide and Bruce wants to do one thing, speak to the common ground,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It doesn’t take a stand, left or right, blue or red, the only stand it takes is the middle.”

“It speaks to where we are now as a country and our need for “common ground,” said Vann Graves, executive director of the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Clearly this is not a new approach, but in today’s climate, it is an effective and necessary one.”

But Brooks Brasfield, 28, watching the game in Nashville with his wife, said the tone of the Jeep ad leaned too political for him.

“I like Springsteen and heartwarming ads like this generally, but this one feels too forced given the current political climate,” he said.

GOING FOR WEIRD

Oat milk company Oatly ran a surprise ad that showed its CEO singing with a keyboard in a field of Oats that its product is like milk but not milk.

It wasn’t a hit with David Simmons, 24, from Louisville, Ky., watching the game with his two roommates and his girlfriend.

“It was just shockingly strange, I couldn’t really focus on the next commercial,” he said. “It was jarringly weird. I drink all types of milk, but I won’t be drinking Oatly.”

But Kim Whitler, a marketing professor at the University of Virginia, said the ad “is likely to stand out because it is so starkly different,“ She added, “It will drive awareness because of the size of the Super Bowl audience and is clear about what it is — and it is quirky. That might work for the target.”

MORE DIVERSITY

Many ads this year featured a diverse cast, from Amazon’s Alexa ad with two Black leads to job site Indeed’s ad featuring a wide array of real-life job seekers. Mercari featured a mixed race couple in its ad and WeatherTech showed a diverse workforce of its real employees.

Elsewhere, Hellmann’s ad featuring Amy Schumer as the “fairy GodMayo” featured a Black lead and DoorDash’s ad starred “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs singing and dancing through a Muppet-populated neighborhood. While it’s hard to quantify how much more diverse the ads were this year, it’s certainly a far cry from 2013, when there was an outcry after a Cheerio’s ad featured a mixed race couple.

“It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business,” said VCU’s Graves. “Consumers are now demanding that they see themselves reflected in brands they spend money on.”

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