Heavy on nostalgia, commercials explore a COVID-free future
By Tiffany Hsu
There was a sense of familiarity planned for the Super Bowl commercial breaks Sunday, as if nothing really had ever changed. Despite the pandemic, and multiple health protocols in place at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, the vast majority of game-time ads were expected to avoid COVID-19.
Many of the ads for this year’s Super Bowl feature diverse casts, but with few explicit references to race even after several years of nationwide reflection on bias and discrimination (Google’s spot about recognizing different skin tones in photography was one exception).
Instead, classic Super Bowl tropes reign. A joint Doritos and Cheetos spot features musical animals. Uber Eats stuffed its ad with celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Trevor Noah, Nicholas Braun and Jennifer Coolidge. Companies aimed for laughs, though not always successfully.
There was at least one major distinction from past years: a surge of commercials from cryptocurrency exchanges aiming to persuade viewers to overlook the industry’s volatility and vulnerabilities. FTX, in its ad, tried and failed to convert Larry David to join up. EToro pushed virtual currency trading as a chance to be part of a community, visualized as a crowd of people floating in the sky, featuring a Dogecoin-referencing Shiba Inu dog and set, in a nod to crypto parlance, to “Fly Me to the Moon.”
The presence of digitally focused companies on a platform that has lost ground to streaming rivals and online outlets demonstrated the enduring appeal of the Super Bowl, where 30 seconds in front of some 100 million viewers cost as much as $7 million this year.
“The myth that TV is dead is a little too eager in our opinion,” said Lule Demmissie, CEO of eToro US. “For us, it was about making sure that we are where those eyes are in the TV sphere, which is the Super Bowl, because it feels like a cultural moment.”
Here is what else was planned between gridiron plays.
A return to normal?
Travel, autos, entertainment and grooming companies are trying to persuade Super Bowl viewers to get pretty and get out — in pre-pandemic style.
There were movie trailers, such as one for “Jurassic World Dominion” at the start of the game (though there were several spots for streaming services as well). Gillette will return with its razors for the first time in 16 years. Online travel agencies such as Expedia and Booking.com hired charming actors such as Ewan McGregor and Idris Elba and are having them sell the fantasy of experience and escape.
Also, there will be cars, and many ways to buy them. Carvana, an online seller of used cars, is making its Super Bowl debut; its competitor, Vroom, will air a mini-musical.
Battery-powered vehicles will appear en masse. Kia has a robotic dog chasing after its EV6 crossover. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Salma Hayek Pinault portrayed the thunderbolt-throwing Greek god Zeus and his wife, Hera, who retire to Palm Springs to zip around in an electric BMW iX.
Nissan will be promoting its electric Ariya crossover in a sendup of Hollywood action thrillers, featuring actors Eugene Levy, Brie Larson, Danai Gurira and Dave Bautista.
Crypto companies and betting apps showcased
Virtual currency companies have drawn much of the attention with their debut in the Super Bowl this year (that floating Coinbase QR code!), but several other categories had fresh entrants, too.
As states and sports leagues embrace sports betting, a surge of ads for betting apps has followed. The Super Bowl will showcase several commercials, including one from DraftKings involving a daredevil Lady Luck. Caesar’s Sportsbook filled its ad with actor JB Smoove as Julius Caesar, actress Halle Berry as Cleopatra and the Manning family of football stars as their dinner guests.
“The category is starting to play on a national level, whereas historically, based on the rollout of legalization, it was more of a local play,” said Jeremy Carey, the managing director of the sports marketing agency Optimum Sports. “Now they’ve gotten to a threshold where there’s efficiencies to be had on a national level.”
Commercials also pushed viewers to care for their bodies.
Cue Health, which makes an at-home COVID-19 test, tapped actress Gal Gadot to voice part of its upcoming inaugural Super Bowl spot. Hologic, in its first game-time ad in its 36-year history, asked singer Mary J. Blige to stress the importance of women keeping up with their health screenings.
“In the moment we’re in in time, health and wellness is absolutely more at the forefront of everybody’s mind-share,” said Jane Mazur, Hologic’s vice president of communications. “We’re not a car, we’re not a chip, we’re not a beer, but we are bringing information to the audience that I think will resonate.”
The comeback kids are here
Nostalgia is always a favorite flavor for Super Bowl commercials. This year, there isn’t much subtlety about it.
In an ad for Bud Light Seltzer Hard Soda, chef Guy Fieri plays the mayor of the Land of Loud Flavors, a fever dream place like a vaguely Ozian Las Vegas, whose citizens are all condemned to sport the spiky white-blond blowfish hairstyle he made famous more than a decade ago.
For General Motors, Mike Myers reprised his role as Dr. Evil from the 25-year-old “Austin Powers” film, except he was now Dr. EV-il and plugging the automaker’s electric vehicle plans. Verizon brought back Jim Carrey as the Cable Guy from the 1996 movie. Chevrolet orchestrated a “Sopranos” reunion for its Silverado commercial, titled “The New Generation.”
In the first Super Bowl commercial from the potato chip company Lay’s in 17 years, titled “Golden Memories,” comedians Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd revisit their past just before Rogen’s wedding ... to a ghoul who had haunted his first house. Lindsay Lohan makes light of her struggles with addiction more than 15 years earlier in a commercial for Planet Fitness, surprising Dennis Rodman, Danny Trejo, William Shatner and the paparazzi with her exercise-induced glow.
Stressed about the economy?
Are ads that address economic issues, from high inflation and high housing prices, the successor to last year’s “in these unprecedented times?”
Although this year’s Super Bowl commercials have been largely upbeat, several touched on undercurrents of financial stress. In its ad, E-Trade tried to persuade its long-retired spokesbaby (voiced by middle-aged comedian Pete Holmes) to return by explaining that consumers are “getting crushed by inflation.” Actor Ewan McGregor, in Expedia’s commercial, pleaded with viewers to ditch their fixation with spending on “stuff” (while encouraging them to spend on vacations).
Rocket Mortgage aired a nightmare scenario for many people shopping for a home, narrated by actress Anna Kendrick. Barbie tries to buy her Dream House, but is swamped in a “super competitive market” that also includes dolls such as “Better Offer Betty,” “Cash Offer Carl” and “House Flipper Skipper.”
“You vultures,” Kendrick exclaims. “You’re going to start a bidding war!”
Barbie wins the house, while the others must consider a “fixer-upper castle” that “has good bones but really bad neighbors” (it’s Castle Grayskull, from “He-Man”).
All this in a year when Super Bowl ad space cost as much as $7 million for 30 seconds. In the game’s inaugural year in 1967, the same space cost as little as $37,500, or about $316,000 when adjusted for inflation.
Real world or virtual world?
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, set its Super Bowl ad in the metaverse. In the ad, an animatronic dog and its friend, a pink-tentacled monster, are separated in their physical reality but reunited via the company’s Quest 2 virtual reality headsets.
Last week, Meta shares sank, partly because the company revealed that it spent $10 billion building its vision of the metaverse, a next-generation internet of shared online environments and experiences, causing its profit to drop.
Software giant Salesforce tapped Matthew McConaughey to propose an alternative to the metaverse: supporting the real world. Titled “#TeamEarth,” the company’s second Super Bowl ad shows the actor drifting in a hotair balloon over the San Francisco Bay Area as he counters, without naming them, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
“While the others look to the metaverse and Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours,” McConaughey says.
Marc Benioff, who runs Salesforce, was deeply involved in the ad, said Sarah Franklin, the chief marketing officer.
“We have enough fluffy razzle-dazzle in the world — we need to get real and focus on saving the planet, helping our society, helping our communities and small business,” she said. “The Super Bowl is an incredible stage to invest in because we have so much attention from people from all walks of life.”
Miller Lite, which is blocked from the Super Bowl broadcast by the NFL’s long-standing exclusivity deal with Anheuser-Busch, instead released its tongue-in-cheek game-time ad in the metaverse, creating an interactive digital tavern serving up virtual pool, virtual beer and realistic expectations.
“We’re not taking ourselves too seriously with this,” said Ari Weiss, the global chief officer of DDB Worldwide, the agency behind the Meta Lite Bar. “The metaverse is not going to save the world, or at least, not yet.