Anatomy of the Best Super Bowl Ads
Year after year, the Super Bowl continues to captivate audiences across the globe—not just for the sportsmanship and the game itself, but for the amazing commercials. Many of the ads and campaigns go on to define what it is to be the best of the best in the industry. But what makes these ads so special? And why do they only seem to come out to play during the Super Bowl?
There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to this very special time of year for advertisers and audiences around the world.
Advertising during the Super Bowl is a decision that requires a lot of thought on the part of marketing executives. First off is the hefty price tag—at $6.5 million per 30-second ad, the steep cost may be enough for some marketers to shy away from securing a spot.
In this post, we’ll outline what makes a great commercial and, of course, do a roundup of the ads that aired during Super Bowl LVI. You’ll also find key insights sprinkled throughout from Tracy Arrington, Senior Vice President of Marketing/Media and lecturer at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations.
What Makes for a Great Commercial?
Great advertisements stem from the notion that brands want to create a winning perception about the product and/or service they offer and, ultimately, want their target audience to take action (i.e. purchase their products or services).
Since all marketing and advertising is subjective (beauty really is in the eye of the beholder), traditional advertisers try to hone in on who will ultimately be purchasing their products. They care about appealing to their primary and secondary target audiences.
The Super Bowl turns the traditional marketing approach on its head.
It’s been said that if you try to speak to everyone, you speak to no one.
So how do Super Bowl advertisers navigate these dicey waters?
For example: while the primary audience of the 2017 Super Bowl were males (51%), the remainder of viewers—49%—were females. In fact, the NFL estimates that 45% of football fans are females. For advertisers, this means that when it comes to making an important segmentation choice—to appeal to men or women with your commercials—the audience is almost literally split down the middle.
Because almost 30% of Americans watch the Super Bowl simply for the ads, advertisers often ditch the traditional segmentation approaches and instead focus on broader psychographic segmentation that challenges the notion of “trying to speak to everyone results in speaking to no one.”
Here’s are Tracy’s thoughts:
“The Super Bowl’s audience is geographically, demographically, and behaviorally diverse, so many people fall into the trap of trying to make everyone happy,” says Tracy. “Which is impossible. So don’t try to do it. Consider the scale of the event, the audience, the environment, the brand’s objectives. Super Bowl ads should connect the brand to the viewers and the viewers to the brand,” she says.
What the Best Super Bowl Ads Have Done Well
Before we get into this year’s super bowl ads, let’s take a look at some of the best Super Bowl ads in 2021 (they’ve had a full year to collect viewership data).
Now, onto this year’s ads, and how they follow the five winning formulas as all iconic Super Bowl ads have done.
1. They Stick with What Works
Year after year, some brands stick with the same themes as the previous year, reviving older storylines, creating a continuing storyline, or adding to a “to be continued storyline.”
In what has now become a well-known campaign, Bud Light coined the phrase “Dilly Dilly” in their medieval-themed ads. Each year they release a new ad with the popular catchphrase and similar theme. If it worked well once, why not keep it going?
As another testament to this technique’s staying power, Budweiser got back to the longstanding story of the Clydesdale this year, which began during Super Bowl XXV in 1991.
2. They Have Celebrity Status
Chances are, if brands are willing to invest in the $6.5 million dollar spot, then they’re a brand with money. Why not go all the way and find the latest celebrity to appear in your ads? Just make sure they’re not part of any scandal that can damage your brand reputation.
Most of the best Super Bowl ads feature well-known celebrities.
During Super Bowl LVI, Nissan aired their first Super Bowl ad in seven years with a number of celebrity appearances. Eugene Levy, Brie Larson, and others brought the Nissan Z sports car to the set of an action film where it clearly belongs!
3. They are Odd and Zany
Some ads get people talking because of how outside of the box they are. They have you scratching your head and wondering how what you watched is even related to the product. Yet somehow, the product is now in your head.
Soap brand Irish Spring aired an ad during this year’s Super Bowl showcasing this odd and zany approach: A smelly football fan being converted to a fresh-smelling member of an Irish Spring-loving community.
4. They are Funny
Humor always seems to be the trend when it comes to the best Super Bowl ads. Whether it be sarcastic humor or nostalgic humor as in the GM video below, humor resonates with the masses and is a tried-and-true fan favorite in advertising.
5. They Create an Emotional Connection
Although humor is a popular route to take when trying to craft the perfect Super Bowl ad, some brands choose to go a different route and tug at the viewer’s heartstrings, reinforcing their values as a brand.
Expedia took the ‘heartstrings’ route and reminded viewers that having things is nice, but doing things and making memories is what we’ll look back on and treasure deeply.
You can watch the rest of Super Bowl LVI’s commercials here.
Criteria of the Best Super Bowl Ads
Although the best Super Bowl ads actually do attempt to be ‘everything to everyone,’ there are still some standards of advertising that Super Bowl ads adhere to in order to get the greatest reach.
“The Super Bowl is the event of all events and the competition isn’t just on the field. The cost of entry is high, so there’s the expectation that the ads will be the best of the best,” says Tracy. “Humans love competition […] with an audience this large, you’ll get some fans no matter what you produce.”
4 Considerations to Producing a Commercial that’s on Par with the Best Super Bowl Ads
1. Brand Focused
Some of the best Super Bowl ads focus on the brand, the brand values and what makes the brand so great. This may seem a little on-the-nose for some, but it can still be an incredibly effective approach, especially if your audience is broad and your goal is to raise awareness. Ultimately, if the ad reinforces what differentiates you and why audiences should choose your brand above all others, then the mission is accomplished.
2. Structured for Longevity
Understanding the demographics of those who are watching the actual event is just one piece of the puzzle. In truth, these commercials will live on, online, where they must continue to have appeal. This can be both challenging to create, but rewarding when pulled off. If your ad is so entertaining that people will choose to find it and watch it online, then you’re winning!
Consumers are inundated with ads and videos from every possible brand, all day long. So how can you, as a brand, set yourself apart from other brands and think outside of the box? Sometimes this can be done with humor, or it can simply mean knowing your competition as well as you know your own brand and then telling your consumers how you do it better. Note: If you’re thinking that going for comical content is right for your brand, here’s How to Infuse Humor in Your Script.
4. Connects with the Audience
Whether it be through humor or other emotional tactics, some of the best Super Bowl ads connect with the audience. Super Bowl ads are crafted in such a way that the ads feel as if they are speaking directly to their consumers, one-on-one. They literally bring your brand voice to life.
Super Bowl Ads Final Thoughts
Super Bowl ads, whether you look forward to them every year or not, have become part of today’s world of marketing and the way brands can tell their stories, sell their products and showcase their values in the modern world.
Some of Tracy’s favorite ads include the Mayhem series from Allstate. “Apple’s work is phenomenal, as always. And anything from Nike. They take risks and don’t operate from a place of fear,” she says. “Everyone should aspire to work that way.”
What are your favorite Super Bowl ads? Share them with us in the comments below.
About Tracy Arrington
Tracy Arrington is a marketing and media executive with more than 20 years of experience with the world’s top brands. Her tough, yet diplomatic nature and dedication to efficient, effective and ethical performance has led her to deliver results for clients including AT&T, Bank of America, BMW, Dreamworks, Nike, Taco Bell, the Texas Lottery, the US Air Force and Walmart.
Tracy serves as the SVP/Marketing & Media for Brain+Trust Partners, a think-tank specializing in development, management and leverage of modern data infrastructures. She is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Texas at Austin, teaching Media Investments and Integrated Communication Campaigns in the top-ranked Stan Richards School of Advertising and PR.