The Most Significant 2018 Super Bowl Ads

Last year I took some time to review the advertisements in the Super Bowl.  We saw that after a particularly divisive election many of the advertisements took on a particularly political tone.  Would the same happen this year in the wake of #metoo?  Or would advertisers tone down the social commentary and aim more for brand building and light humor?  Weirdly enough I mentioned 2004’s “wardrobe malfunction” in my introduction to last year’s piece and this year the Half Time Show was performed by Justin Timberlake, half of the duo that caused the malfunction.  While the Half Time Show is not exactly an ad, it might as well have served as one since Justin Timberlake dropped a new album last week.  So I’ll tackle the Half Time Show as well.

Obviously the big draw of the Super Bowl for advertisers is the huge number of live eyes.  That number may have been down this year.  Some reports are indicating that Super Bowl LII is the lowest-rated “big game” in 9 years, to back when the Saints beat the Colts.  This is the kind of dip that happens most often in sports with small market teams in the finals, but Philadelphia is not a small market, and neither is Boston.  The Patriots are a dynasty team.  And while the Patriots were heavily favored to win, there was no reason for people not to watch and root for the underdogs and against the “Evil Empire.”  But people seemed to stay away.  Was this a continuation of the general trend of people watching less football that we saw all year, or are there other factors at work?

Digging deeper, there do appear to be other factors.  The share of televisions watching the game doesn’t seem to have changed very much from year to year, but the problem, if we can call it a problem, is that there are fewer televisions on in the first place.  The ratings attempt to correct for internet viewing, but that does seem to be on the rise and it’s a demographic that Nielsen and related companies have difficulty tracking–though it’s probably easier for the providers themselves to track.  It seems that America’s love of television as our primary source of entertainment may be coming to an end.  Will this trend continue, and what will we do with our entertainment time now?

For those looking for a competitive game, they got it.  For those looking for a modern-day Clios, they were probably disappointed.  The product on the field largely outplayed all of the advertisements.  The Eagles got their upset victory and many people, including my boss, were thrilled.  The “Evil Empire” took another hit.  An interesting fact about the actual game.  The Eagles punted once.  The Patriots never punted at all.  The Eagles had a turnover, which almost certainly took points off the board for them, and cost them a possession.  In spite of this the Eagles led at the half and led at the end of the game, only losing the lead for a brief period of time all game.  Brady’s fumble to seal the game came very late, on a desperation drive.  While it provided the conclusion, it was not, itself, the game decider.  The Eagles won/were in the winning position despite punting more and having more turnovers than one of the greatest teams in football history.  The kicking games had a lot to do with that, as Gostkowski did not have a great game.  And the impressive trick plays, the bookends of the Brady failed reception an the miracle 4th-and-goal conversion of a pass to Foles did highlight the game perfectly.

I spent the Super Bowl, watching those plays, but also with a pen and paper prepared to once again track who was advertising, what was being advertised, when the ad ran and, in my opinion which ads worked and which didn’t.  I used the same “after the national anthem” starting point as last year so I could have an apples to apples comparison.

Summary of 2018 Super Bowl Ads

I tracked 102 1 advertisements.  This is a decline of 12% from 2017’s advertising load.  I can blame almost all of that on the fact that the 2017 game went into overtime.  But interestingly, I did keep paying attention once the game was over and NBC started running repeat ads immediately after the game.  The very first commercial break contained 3 repeats in 6 ads, and all three of the “new” ads were NBC/Comcast advertising for their own products.  If the 2018 game had gone to overtime, would we have seen more repeats?  Are there conditional clauses in these advertising contracts, “we’ll show your ad in this slot, which may or may not exist depending on the outcome of the game.”  How much do those ads run for?  Once again, the ads were of differing lengths, and commercial breaks contained typically one to three ads.  Again, I don’t count any advertisements that are not independent.  When the program/game comes back on and the announcers are continuing to name sponsors, those are ads, but they are not the programing ads we are hyped to see at the Super Bowl.  So I will ignore them.  Of those 102 ads:

  • 14 were for NBC products (this was a decrease in number and percentage from FOX’s 2017 self-advertising.
    • The Olympics dominated the NBC line of advertising with 6 of the 14 self-spots.
    • The “This is Us” episode that would follow the Super Bowl with impressive retention took two spots.
    • the remaining 6 spots were each for a different NBC product. Three for new ventures (Rise, Good Girls,  Jesus Christ Superstar) unlike FOX’s 2017 massive efforts to drum up audiences for new products, NBC was largely content to remind us of their already popular and existing programming.
  • Other TV stations had an easier time breaking the market than last year.  HBO, USA and Telemundo each got an ad in for their cable networks.  Netflix and Hulu each ran an ad again, Amazon had several, but only one for an Amazon Prime show proper, and YouTube/Google also threw one in for their television service at large.  This constitutes 7 ads for television products other than NBC, compared to only five on FOX last year in a larger selection.
  • Despite feeling like there were a lot of movie trailers, in the tracked ads, only 5 were movie trailers, a decrease from last year’s 7.  The decline of movies and the continued rise of the Golden Age of Television?
  • Another 10 were for cars or car companies, matching last year’s total.  This race was won by Toyota, which clearly has a strong relationship with NBC from the Sunday Night halftime promo spot they run.
  • 6 were for beer companies.  A seventh was for wine.  This was a solid increase from 2017, yet all advertised products were once again Imbev brands.

This covers 41 of the 102 spots already.  But those are just statistics.  Now it’s time to delve into the content.  Did it make us think?  Was it amusing or entertaining?  What got us talking the next day?  Based on the conversations I’ve had with my friends and coworkers, the general consensus is that this year was a miss.  We talked about the advertisements more last year, even if it was mostly negative talk. This year, we’re just not talking about them much at all.  If you were chatting around the water cooler, these are probably the ones you were talking about.

“Built to Serve”

 

This is the buzz ad of the 2018 Super Bowl, and it hasn’t been good buzz.  While I don’t doubt Jeep’s intentions, attempting to hitch your brand to a civil rights leader who is dead and without the permission of his family–even if they got permission of the estate–to sell products is going to cause backlash.  If only because of this backlash, this is your most significant 2018 Super Bowl ad.  There is a phrase that no news is bad news, publicity can be its own reward.  I don’t expect this will hurt Ram sales much, and if it gets us talking about Ram as opposed to another truck in the crowed market of high margin vehicles, they have to feel they came out ahead.

“Tide”

 

Tide brought the house with a brilliant idea and solid execution.  They blanketed the Super Bowl with five separate spots, each reinforcing the idea that every other Super Bowl advertisement was also an advertisement for Tide, because, after all, those actors are all in clean clothes.  I applaud the clever use of humor and expectations, as well as the format of the advertising wars itself to position their brand and retain their #1 spot in the detergent business.  Persil also bought an spot, and it was a good advertisement that they ran, but Tide crushed them.  The only thing this campaign missed was a response to the idiotic Tide Pod Challenge.

 

“Eli Manning”

In the moment of declining viewership, a head trauma crisis and a disconnect between the faces of their franchises and their deep-pocketed audience, the NFL felt the need to take the time to advertise itself and the game of football several times through the broadcast.  The weirdest ones starred Eli Manning and his teammates.  Eli is not as charismatic a spokesperson as his older brother, who put on a serviceable ad for Universal Studios theme parks, but he does screwball pretty well, and is clearly OK with not taking himself seriously at all.  But I do wonder if the Giants, the 3-13 NFC East basement dwellers, were the right team to advertise with.

“Doritos/Mountain Dew”

This was a bit of a double-ad, with Doritos and Mountain Dew, both Yum! Brands products, working together, as they often do in the presence of teenage boys.  This advertisement works on celebrity appeal.  Both Dinklage and Freeman are popular actors, and the juxtaposition to their “music,” performed by Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott was solid.  But that juxtaposition is also where the controversy came.  Dinklage largely got away with the lip synched rapping–and props to him for that, lip-synching a rap is probably almost as hard as actually rapping, given the speeds required.  The Morgan Freeman side is where the backlash occured, as Freeman lip synchs Missy Elliott’s singing.  And she is there in the ad with him as well, and yet there was significant blowback about the placement and useage and gender roles at play.

Personally, I care less about that and more about the fact that Doritos has repeatedly broken the rules when it comes to Super Bowl ads. They are releasing their ads on YouTube well in advance of the game.  This would seem to decrease the appeal, not increase.  The advertisement production is fine, but let it do its work in the proper slot.  If the purpose is building up the hype for the spot, releasing it early just deflates it all.

“Crocodile Dundee Sequel”

The thing is, this was a surprisingly plausible movie advertisement.  The only possible clue that this was parody was that Danny McBride is in the lead.  Overall, significant props to the Australia tourism board for making the pitch and getting it to happen. This was not a cheap advertisement to make, nor a cheap slot to show it in.  If it doesn’t pay off, they’re going to look bad.  But they did a good job, so it should pay off.

“Cloverfield Paradox”

Some credit where it is due.  Based on after-the-fact reading, Netflix took an under- performing movie and turned it into an event.  By buying the property outright and making it available for streaming after the big game with no prior notice, they captured a bit of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) element that makes live television so powerful.  The movie has been widely panned, and yet it was still success for Netflix.  The failure is unlikely to hurt their brand, and their success in driving viewership almost certainly means we’ll see repeat attempts, and probably with higher quality work.  However, I did notice a preponderance of J.J. Abrams throughout the Super Bowl.  Cloverfield Paradox, Castle Rock, Mission Impossible, perhaps others? Have we reached Peak J.J.?

“Feel Something Again”

KIA also dipped into the celebrity appeal well here, doing a good job of appealing to a demographic that probably has misgivings or worse about buying a KIA vehicle: the boomers.  Boomers are going to be buying cars for a few more years at least, so this should pay some dividends.  Meanwhile, the rest of us got an amusing advertisement.

“Alexa Loses Her Voice”

Take an absurd, but humorous idea and play with it and add in some celebrity panache and humor and get the CEO to put his face on the TV too.  This was the classic Super Bowl style commercial.  My complaints again rest in releasing it early and in the fact that this was just a silly advertisement.  I don’t think it would have cracked the top ten in most years.  Yet this year, this advertisement was one of the most popular and widely talked about.

“Human”

Humans love to anthropomorphize.  If it can have human characteristics, then sure, why not?  Anthropomorphic M&Ms have been a staple in the Mars advertising book for decades, with the modern versions appearing in 1995.  For the Super Bowl they took it to the next level.  The M&M wasn’t an anthropomorphic candy, but an actual human in candy cosplay.  Casting Danny Devito was a winner here, both for the humor and absurdity, but also for the physical humor.  One of the strangest and funniest of the comedy advertisements this year.

“Giant Skip Ad”

Say what you want to say and get out.  The only drawback to this is this advertisement could easily have been missed by a viewer caught in a quick conversation.  But for those of us watching it did everything a good advertisement should do.  It built the brand well, identifying time savings as a key facet of their purpose, and then it demonstrated it with a brilliant play on current technology, all with some simple humor.  Intuit ran several ads through the course of the game, which makes sense.  This is prime tax season, so they want to get as many people re-aware of TurboTax as they can.  But I really think this was their most effective advertisement and it had the added benefit of also reminding us that Intuit also owns Quickbooks.  All in 15 seconds.

Bonus Advertisement: local company “Cyprus Air” ran this in my market.

Just like last year, the local advertisement for Cyprus Air wins my nod for best locally produced advertisement.  Once again it is a combination of a football player and a political impersonator.  I’ve recently also heard Kirk on the radio for these guys.  Poor Kirk, he does not deserve what the team has done to him.  But hey, at least he got the massive paychecks.

“Blacture”

I also wanted to give some applause to the advertisement for Blacture.  I’m not sure what it is, or what they intend.  And I am definitely not the target audience.  But the advertisement felt very powerful.  Some excellent direction for the actor, who is apparently a musician, Pras.  In somewhat understandable fashion, such an avant-garde advertisement is not available for me to link to on YouTube.  But it is readily available for watching on many sites across the web, including, currently on the Blacture website itself.

In Closing

It was a down year for Super Bowl advertisements.  While a return to humor was most welcome after last year’s preach-fest, the results were mixed at best.  There were very few truly standout spots, so I’ve filled my roster with many that were “acceptable,” offering a modicum of entertainment.  Perhaps the thing I found most interesting in performing this analysis for a second year was the nearly identical breakdown in advertisements across categories from year to year.  It is as if the networks are all working on the exact same formula.  Not just a certain number of spots to sell, but a certain number to each category of product.  Beer and cars are always going to be in high numbers as they are staples of football advertising.  Movie trailers are very popular for the Super Bowl as they get a lot of buzz and attention for the new releases, even if those releases are 3 or more months away.  Individual companies may shift, but it seemed almost formulaic.  If there is that much similarity between a Super Bowl on FOX and one on NBC, it does make me question how diverse our media network truly is just a little more.

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Andrew Riley
CFO and Games Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Gaming news, reviews and opinion blogger. Statistics nerd. Achievement whore. Really bad at shooters.

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