Playing It Safe: Advertising In Super Bowl LIII

February 13, 2019 by 

Super Bowl LIII was not the riveting spectacle that last year’s contest was. Not only was it the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history, the halftime show disappointed viewers and critics alike. As a result, the telecast had the smallest audience since 2008.

Of course, at 98.2 million viewers, even a disappointing Super Bowl is still a juggernaut, especially for brands, something that advertisers have recognized for decades. By the time the big game was 9 years old, shaving cream brand Noxema produced a spot that sparked conversation. Eleven years later, Apple released their famous 1984 spot that elevated the definition of advertising. Fast forward to today, and some argue that the ads are as important as the game itself.

It’s an expensive game for brands to play. At $5.2 million per 30 second spot—before production costs and agency fees—one Super Bowl ad could buy you 2.6 billion Instagram impressions, 32 years worth of mobile video ads, 2 million MORE people reached via Facebook that the whole Super Bowl audience, or 8 Instagram posts from Selena Gomez. All told, advertisers spent an estimated $382 million on in-game advertising.

But is it worth the money? The Super Bowl stands out to advertisers for a reason. The impact extends far beyond the impressions reached on the screen. People talk about their favorites and least favorites, news sources write summaries, and no one can put a price tag on the conversation that extends beyond the event itself.


The annual crop of Super Bowl ads tell us something about the state of the nation and the industry. This is what we learned this year:

Women at the Front In 2018, 3 times more men than women fronted Super Bowl commercials. This year, that ratio improved to two to one. A number of major brands used the big game to reach women. Bumble featured Serena Williams in their game-time spot as she walked through her empowering life story. Spiked Seltzer company, Bon & Viv, brought two fictitious mermaids center stage, while Toyota told the story of female football star, Toni Harris.

On the flip side, there was also a noticeable shift in the men featured in this year’s Super Bowl spots. Rather than being shown as the bumbling idiot or simply comic relief, brands are showcasing a more dynamic man who is empathetic and hands-on. This trend was perfectly shown in Pampers’ “Stinky Booty Duty” spot, featuring John Legend and Adam Levine changing their babies’ diapers.

Sad Robots What does it say about society that we confront our ambivalence about AI and automation by making sure that we see how inferior to us the robots must feel. We had a bumper crop of sad robots this year, making this one of the more obvious trends. Each spot featuring these machines began with an underlying feeling of anxiety about the arrival of robots in our society, but all eventually end with the message that they can never be as human as us.

Michelob Ultra told the story of a robot who is able to beat his human counterparts in any physical challenge but realizes that winning isn’t worth it because he has no one to share it with. Turbo Tax shuts down a child robot’s dreams of becoming a Turbo Tax CPA because he will never be emotionally intelligent enough, while Pringles showcased a female device lamenting over the fact that she would never be able to experience a stack of different flavored chips.

Celebritie$ Celebrities and Super Bowl commercials have gone together like peanut butter and jelly. But just as the humble pbj on white bread is now the artisanal hand ground nut butter and small batch preserves on artisan sourdough, celebrity Super Bowl ads are reflecting the changing, more individual, nature of fame. This year brands took a updated their approach by leveraging the unique personal brands that the celebrities have built. Pepsi successfully inserted itself into what some fans may call the year of Cardi B. Expensify partnered with Atlanta hometown hero, 2 Chainz, in a hilarious spot about the ease of expensing an elaborate video shoot with their tool. The NFL teamed up with players by showcasing their notable on field signature moves and plays.

Nostalgic Appearances Brands also brought back a range of celebrities who recall earlier times. This year, spots placed iconic figures from years past in today’s spotlight. It was a move that gave the spots cross-generational appeal and stood out from the expected tactic of relying on the most relevant and buzzy celebrities to get attention. Carrie Bradshaw shocked us when she ditched her iconic Cosmopolitan for a Stella Artois, which she shared with The Dude. Charlie Sheen made a brief yet relevant cameo in an ad for Planters, with his simple message of “and people think I’m nuts.” And in a spot that appealed to many generations, the Backstreet Boys collaborated with today’s music icon Chance the Rapper to talk about the new Doritos flavor. (A fitting collaboration to match the headline of the spot: “The original, now it’s hot.)

Breaking Norms While advertisers generally played it safe this year, some pushed the boundaries of what an ad can be. Redefining the traditional structures that ads take, certain brands this year shared content that one wouldn’t expect to see in a :30 second spot. Skittles continued their tradition of teasing content that you had to go out of your way to see. They put on a Broadway musical called “Skittles Commercial,” which is perhaps the first ad you had to pay to see. Burger King took an unexpected approach, airing 45 seconds of unaltered footage of Andy Warhol eating a burger 37 years ago. While its unique form definitely stood out for critics, earning it second place honors from AdWeek, the majority of viewers didn’t know who Warhol was. And The Washington Post aired a spot, an unexpected move for a news outlet, yet a timely one.

The Heart Prompts the Head Unlike in past years, ads stayed away from messages that were too political, polarizing, or provocative. Many of the spots focused on a functional benefit, but they did so with heart. They told compelling stories that were simple and focused, reinforcing the idea that storytelling still is paramount, even in today’s day and age. Budweiser had an unexpected reveal in a classic image of the Clydesdales, zooming out to show a windmill farm. Microsoft pulled at heartstrings through telling the stories of young kids with disabilities who are able to play video games with their friends with the help of Xbox’s new adaptive controller. And Google gave us all hope through exploring a simple yet powerful insight about the 100 billion words that are translated every day.

The Tide Effect Last year, Tide struck gold with its meta-Super Bowl spot. Not only was the ad a hit because of its humor but also because the brand purchased a spot in each quarter making it difficult to forget. This year, brands like T-Mobile and Bud Light followed suit and bought spots in each quarter of the game. Beyond quantity of spots, brands were also moving towards lengthier commercials. In an effort to be more impactful during the Super Bowl, Bud Light, Burger King and Microsoft all purchased 45-second or 60-second ads rather than the typical 30-second spots. Whether these hefty purchases were truly worth it is still to be determined, but regardless, Tide’s 2018 win left its mark on marketing.

Brands took a moderate approach this year, which may undermine the mission the Super Bowl can undertake for advertisers. It is one of very few moments when brands have the attention they crave all other days of the year. It is a chance to establish your brand as a part of culture. It’s doubtful that any of this year’s ads will enter the pantheon of the top Super Bowl ads of all time as measured by USA Today’s Ad Meter.

On one of the biggest stages in advertising, the Super Bowl is a time to take risks, make a splash, and hopefully spark conversation.

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