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Super Bowl Ad Recap – $360 Million In Wasted Ad Spend (Ouch!)

Dog holding a football.
4 Feb 2019

This year, RedRover's partnered with the Daily Memphian for our annual Super Bowl ads breakdown.

As Featured in the Daily Memphian


Lackluster. Safe. Ho-hum. Meh. Not worth $5.25 let alone the $5.25 million per 30-second spot ponied up by the big brands. That was the state of 75 percent of this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads. That’s an estimated $360 million in wasted ad dollars. Ouch!

Why were there so many ad failures this year? We’re in confusing times. 

In 2016, most brands focused on entertainment value. After all, the country was in the throes of a tempestuous election with serious ads saturating every media channel, and the country needed some levity. Advertisers took a starkly different path in 2017 with the tone more serious and focused on themes like friendship, empowerment, politics and unity. Last year, humor again prevailed. This year, advertisers seemed to be struggling to know what message to send to consumers. Much of the country isn’t feeling particularly frivolous and light, and social issues are risky in today’s politically charged environment. The result was a  looming theme of mediocrity, right in line with a rather mediocre game. 

Preferring to hedge their bets, we saw a number of jokes about robots – in beer, potato chip and home security ads. Powerful women also rose up as a recurring theme, though not nearly to the degree most predicted. Bumble partnering up with Serena Williams was brilliant. She’s a powerhouse, and with the brand’s evolution from dating to connecting, the alignment was ideal. Sadly, most viewers were scratching their heads at the end of the spot asking “what is Bumble?” Close, but no cigar.

It wasn’t just the ad content that was unusual this year, as advertisers made some notable strategy adjustments as well.

Ad length decreased, no doubt to align with dwindling audience attention spans, with only 25 percent of all ads being longer than the typical 30-second spot compared to 43 percent last year. As a result, storytelling suffered.

The number of spots with celebrity spokespeople increased notably from 40 percent last year to 58 percent this year, a necessary move when you need to grab attention quickly in a shorter commercial. 

Nostalgia made its way into several spots this year with a tip of the hat to Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, the Backstreet Boys, Carrie Bradshaw (from Sex and the City),and The Dude (from the Big Lebowski).

Only 27 percent of brands released their complete ads in advance of the big game, a trend that has declined considerably since its peak in 2016 at 75 percent. Volkswagen was the pioneer that first took a risk on releasing their spot, called “The Force,” in full in advance of the Super Bowl back in 2011, a potentially dicey move that paid off big time making this ad the most watched online of all time. 

Pre-game winners this year were Amazon’s “Not Everything Makes the Cut” – which generated 24 million viewers – and Hyundai’s “The Elevator” which garnered 20 million views before the big game. Compare those numbers to last year’s top pre-release – “Rhett & Link” by Wix, which generated a whopping 77-million YouTube Views before kick-off.

The NFL kicked off its 100-year celebration with a delightful and widely popular two-minute spot, called “The 100-Year Game,” featuring more than 40 current and former players and an impromptu, destructive pickup game.

One of the most brilliant Super Bowl moves this year sadly disappeared moments after it was released into the world. In the fourth quarter, with the game mercilessly tied at 3-3 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Mercedes brand launched the best tweet of the night – until they panicked and deleted it. The tweet read “If this game weren’t in my stadium, I would have driven away by now.” The tweet was reminiscent of Oreo’s “dunk in the dark” tweet after the blackout of Super Bowl 2013. 

Super Bowl ad popularity polls are common after the big game, though popularity doesn’t always equate to effectiveness. Often, consumers can’t recall the brands associated with some of the most entertaining or moving spots and even if they can, they may not be inspired to make a purchase.

Memphis-based RedRover Sales & Marketing Strategy’s team of advertising pros assessed this year’s commercials according to what matters most: viewer connection, strength of storytelling, memorability, reinforcement of brand differentiators, likelihood viewers will remember the brand, and likelihood to drive brand affinity and sales.

Treat – These brands were real treats to watch:

Amazon – “Not Everything Makes the Cut” – To make the point that Amazon’s Alexa device can automate anything, the online retailer delivers a spoof of some of the applications that supposedly hit the cutting-room floor – such as an Alexa-controlled dog collar which allows your dog to ship sausage to the house. Celebs were plentiful in this well-done spot, including Forest Whitaker and Harrison Ford among others.

Hyundai – “The Elevator” – Jason Bateman brings his dry wit to this spot which reminds us of the fresh hell that is car buying and how Hyundai’s Shopper Assurance program takes all of the pain away. The writing is sharp and funny, including the memorable line: “Not so fast, Captain Colon.” 

Planters – “Mr. Peanut Is Always There in Crunch Time” – In a veritable nut emergency, Mr. Peanut races across town in his peanut mobile to save A-Rod and his party guests from boring snacks. Just as we thought, Mr. Peanut is good at crunch time.   

Hulu – “The Handmaid’s Tale” – This ad was intense and haunting. “Wake up America. Morning’s over.” And we’re all ready to usher in season three. 

Bud Light – “Joust” – Bud Light lured us in with a series of rather lackluster ads promoting their “no corn syrup” differentiator. Just when we thought we were getting one more, they ignited our passion for Game of Thrones with a fiery co-promotion that took us all by surprise. Well done, Anheuser-Busch. Mind BLOWN.

Washington Post – “Democracy Dies in Darkness” – In a time when news organizations are under greater scrutiny than perhaps any other time in our nation’s history, the Post reminds us what’s at stake without quality journalism. Tom Hanks’ narration describes the intended role of journalists as unbiased eyewitnesses and fact gatherers – those who help hold power accountable.

Trash – These brands trashed their multi-million-dollar opportunities:

Devour – “Food Porn” – This self-proclaimed seller of frozen-food porn gives us a TMI glimpse into the relationship of a young couple. Smut-shaming aside, most just found the spot awkward at best, and the uncensored longer version is worse.

TurboTax – “RoboChild” – A guy creates a haunting robotic kid who wants to be a TurboTax CPA when he grows up. Dad breaks it to the creepy kid that he doesn’t have the emotional bandwidth to be a CPA, and he goes haywire. It’s difficult to imagine this ad inspiring anyone to take action – other than firing their TurboTax CPA.

Burger King – “Eat Like Andy” – Leveraging vintage footage of Andy Warhol, Burger King manages to leave us feeling unsettled, awkward and completely unsure of what we watched or why. 

T-Mobile – “What’s for Dinner” – In a spot that ridicules the way women communicate – both in this ad and the similar “We’ll Keep This Brief” ad – T-Mobile demonstrates they have no idea that it’s actually 2019. 

Mint Mobile – “Chunky Style Milk” – Nope. No one ever wants to see people chewing chunky milk. Ever. This fake ad for the telecom newbie has nothing to do with the brand, is unlikely to drive consumers to buy the product, and is sure to leave you gagging. If that was the desired effect, well then mission accomplished. 

Super Bowl LIII was unremarkable to say the least — from the many pedestrian ads to the hotly debated half-time performance to the uneventful game. Only time will tell if the advertising decisions these companies made will boost or detract from consumer affinity for their brands, but I have my money on the latter for most.

Lori Turner-Wilson, CEO and founder of RedRover Sales & Marketing Strategy, can be reached at redrovercompany.com.  

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