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2021 Super Bowl Ads: the Good, the Bad, and the Baffling

For football fans, Super Bowl LV was nothing to write home about. Tom Brady threw a lot of accurate short passes, as he’s done for 20 years. Patrick Mahomes ran around and showed off incredible arm talent, but couldn’t put points on the board. The Weeknd put on a good show.

As marketers, we were more focused on the commercials. At $5.5 million for a 30-second spot (a discount from last year), Super Bowl ads are notorious for being the cream of the crop of TV ads, when companies pull out all the stops and blow their budgets to get their brand in front of 100 million people.

Unfortunately, this was an odd year for commercials, too. Maybe because brands didn’t know quite what tone to take after such a fractions year or maybe simply out of a desire to play it safe, none of the ads featured much in the way of groundbreaking ideas or memorable imagery. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the big game.

The Best of the Bunch

Finally, a bright spot. Michael B. Jordan has the face, body, and voice to be “a more beautiful vessel for Alexa.” The ad shows off the everyday utility of Amazon’s voice assistant while adding some perfectly timed humor. And as a bonus, Amazon sneaks in a plug for their newest Prime-exclusive blockbuster.

Squarespace – 5 to 9

One of precious few 30-second spots, Squarespace gets right to the point: your day job is boring, but 5 to 9 is when you can really shine — and a website from Squarespace can help. We don’t love the fact that this spot basically flips the message of the original Dolly Parton song, and there are plenty of problems with the “side hustle” world, but Dolly is a national treasure, so we’ll let it slide.

Michelob Ultra – Happy

It’s not like a beer commercial to make a strong emotional appeal, but Michelob Ultra sent a strong message to enjoy the little moments with this spot.

Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade – Last Year’s Lemons

Bud Light made up for their previous flop with this spot, which looked back at the “lemon of a year” that was 2020 and looks forward to a time when we can have maskless outdoor barbecues and laugh about it. They even abstained from finishing the phrase, “when life gives you lemons.” Topical and to the point.

Marshawn Lynch puts a twist on the “Night before Kickoff” spots that have been running all season. Super Bowl legends like the Manning Brothers, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Jerome Bettis relive their glory days with more charisma and acting chops than most of the celebrity cameos we saw this year. And Frito-Lay cements the unbreakable bond between football and snacking.

M&M’s – Sorry

Let this be a lesson to everyone else: if you don’t need 60 seconds to get your message across, don’t book a 60-second spot. M&M’s gives us a few succinct, funny vignettes of people apologizing with candy. That’s all an ad needs to be.

Ford – Finish Strong

Ford has always leaned into the message of American exceptionalism and the indomitability of the human spirit, but this isn’t just lip service — Ford used their manufacturing facilities to build more than 50,000 ventilators last year, and they’ve donated more than 66 million medical-grade masks across the country.

Dawn and Swiffer – Come Clean

The insight is simple: too many households relegate most of the chores to just one person. Dawn and Swiffer entreat us all to help each other out around the house while showing how their products can help us do so.

Tracy Morgan is hilarious, but more importantly, this ad sticks to its message: use Rocket Mortgage to be completely certain that you’re buying a house you can afford. When the stakes are high, “pretty sure” isn’t sure enough.

Rehashing Old Trends

Many brands seemed to take the approach of building a commercial around “the thing you’ve already heard of, except there’s a celebrity in it.”

Uber Eats – The Big Bowl

The message of supporting local restaurants by ordering through Uber Eats is a good one, but the self-aware jokes about celebrity endorsements and emotional manipulation fell flat. Why is Cardi B here?

Cheetos – It Wasn’t Me

Remember that song from 21 years ago? Cheetos brought it up again so that Mila Kunis could deny having stolen Ashton Kutcher’s snacks. It doesn’t help that Ashton can’t sing, but how this ad is designed to make us want Cheetos, we don’t know.

Scotts and Miracle-Gro

Scotts wants to give away the “lawn of your dreams,” so they’re showing you all the fun things you can do on a dream lawn — grilling, golfing, mowing, gardening, and making Tik Tok videos, apparently. Rather than sticking with the charming Scotsman of years past, Scotts went with an odd mix of celebrities. Does the fact that it’s John Travolta dancing add to the joke? Not really.

Bud Light is literally out of ideas, so they brought back all their commercial spokespeople from the last 10 years, only without the taglines or characteristic jokes that made us like those spokespeople.

Cadillac LYRIQ – ScissorHandsFree

It’s hard out there for a guy with scissors for hands … so buy a Cadillac? Winona Ryder is back as Kim Boggs, and Timothée Chalamet is the new Edward, who can finally drive a car because Cadillac has fancy cruise control. The car doesn’t even appear until the last 15 seconds of the commercial.

Off the Mark

GM – No Way Norway

Norway buys a lot of electric cars, so GM decided to target them with their promise of 30 new EV models in the next few years. That’s great, and Will Ferrell is his usual funny self, but Ford and Audi have already jumped on the opportunity to remind GM that they’re way behind the curve. The message also feels pretty disingenuous coming from the company that’s been fighting emissions regulations for decades.

Apparently, CBS All Access is changing its name to Paramount+. We’re not sure why CBS needed to spend half a dozen agonizingly long spots telling everyone this — or why they never actually mentioned that this is a rebrand as opposed to a new streaming service.

Jeep – The Middle

Bruce Springsteen entreats us all to find common ground in the “ReUnited States of America,” while coming off as shockingly tone-deaf about the reasons our country is so divided in the first place. Two takeaways from this commercial: why is Jeep trying to take a political stand, and why is this ad so long?

Just Plain Weird

Tide – Jason Alexander Hoodie

Ignoring the fact that the guy in the commercial is far too young to realistically be a Seinfeld fan, why is Tide spending 60 seconds to tell us that clothes need to be washed sometimes? Why does adding a changing face to the hoodie add to that message? Why is the actual Jason Alexander in it? Tide hit the nail on the head with “nope, it’s a Tide ad” two years ago. What happened?

Hellman’s – Fairy Godmayo

We have to hand it to Hellman’s for the “fairy godmayo” pun, but otherwise, this ad makes no sense. It’s supposed to be showing the versatility of mayonnaise and how it can spruce up boring food, but the guy in the ad goes from holding a few leftovers to sitting down in front of a feast. We’re pretty sure you can’t make crusty bread out of mayo and an artichoke, Hellman’s.

We’ll say this for Oatly: you’ll certainly remember this ad, where the CEO sings about oat milk in a field. A word of advice, though: if you’re going to shell out Super Bowl bucks, you can probably afford better writing than “wow, wow, no cow.”

Super Bowl Ads Done Right

For our money, one of the best Super Bowl ads of all time was 2011’s “Imported from Detroit” ad by Chrysler.

Detroit is a town that’s been through hell. From an automotive boomtown to the edge of destitution and back, Detroit is the perfect symbol of American resilience. Here’s what that ad did so well:

  • Tied the features of the product and the brand directly to the messaging
  • Created a tagline that resonated powerfully with both car buyers and Detroit locals
  • Used a celebrity that means something — Eminem isn’t a random musician, he’s been as much the face of Detroit as anyone for the last 20 years

The ad is a full two minutes, but it doesn’t feel like it. The mood, imagery, writing, voiceover, and branding are all exactly on point.

Branding Matters

We have no doubt that you’ll see these ads hundreds of times during the next several months — companies don’t spend money like this for a mere 60 seconds of airtime — but how many of them are you going to remember in five years? How many of them will be the next Imported from Detroit? How many of them actually told you anything about the brand?

Whether you’re a global corporation or a startup trying to make a name for yourself, branding matters. The point of putting your brand in the spotlight with an eight-figure ad spend isn’t to elicit a few cheap laughs, it’s to emphasize who you are, what you do, and why you do it, and that’s a lesson that many companies seem to have lost sight of the basics of branding in this year’s ads. Stay focused on what your company is really trying to accomplish, and we’ll see you after next year’s game.

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