A New Playbook: Super Bowl Ads Go Deep on Empathy and Rising Above

The highly anticipated scoring onslaught between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes in Super Bowl LV never really materialized, with Brady’s Bucs rolling to a rather anticlimactic 31-9 victory over Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday night. While Brady did his part with three touchdown passes, one running joke that lit up the internet was that an on-field streaker had more yards of offense than the Chiefs. Or that the National Anthem sign language dancing guy had more moves and energy than any Chiefs player.

From an advertisement standpoint, a lot of the pre-game “hype” focused on Budweiser, Pepsi and Coke all sitting on the sidelines – choosing not to spring $5.5 million for a 30-second spot. Come game time, however, Budweiser was prominently featured in an Anheuser-Busch ad featuring many of its products, and Bud Light shelled out roughly $22 million for two 1-minute spots, including “Bud Light Legends” featuring a familiar cast of characters and one of the more humorous ads of the night, featuring Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade commenting on the lemon of a year that was 2020.

Among the most-talked about spots include Bruce Springsteen appearing for Jeep in “The Middle” about unity and a chapel in Kansas (was Jeep announcing a 2024 run for president?) and Paramount never letting us forget that its new streaming service debuts on March 4, with not two or three, but four 1-minute ads with a who’s who of Paramount characters hiking to the top of Mt. Paramount. An Alexa ad with Michael B. Jordan appeared to be promoting infidelity, dreaming of a future design that left little to the imagination, a “flat” Matthew McConaughey pitched 3-D Doritos, and a Tide ad used the face of Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame to promote cleanliness.

Less on CX, More on Meaning

As for Super Bowl commercials with a focus on customer experience (CX), customer engagement or personalization, this year’s crop of ads fell as flat as McConaughey. Unlike the past few years, there was nothing about curbside pick-up, for instance, an interesting omission considering the service’s rise in popularity over the past year; one study shows that 85 percent of consumers have significantly increased curbside pick-up orders. Pandemic fatigue, one could argue, made some brands shy away from reminding the roughly 100 million viewers of anything to do with the adjustments we’ve all had to make.

That said, without directly addressing COVID-19, many brands played on tangential social issues, highlighting resolve, fortitude and solidarity. The 2-minute Jeep spot, for instance (the No. 3 most-searched for ad according to Google Trends), narrated by Springsteen, touted connectivity, common ground and crossing the divide. Not to be outdone, Ford’s “Finish Strong” ad discussed sacrifice, holding the line, staying strong and fighting for one another. Job-searching network Indeed also got into the act with “The Rising,” playing on hope, inspiration and strength of those trying to get back on their feet.

Ads like those did play on customer experience in a way, with a tacit acknowledgement that what a customer care about today is very different than what it was a year ago. How we extract value from the brands we interact with is less about product than it is having a meaningful relationship. We covered this as a growing trend in our 2021 predictions blog. Value, we wrote, “is not measured by a price tag, but rather by respect, empathy and understanding of an individual customer’s unique needs and wants.” In the Ford commercial, for instance, the automaker did not show a single vehicle, focusing exclusively on joining together to overcome adversity.

Our 2021 predictions blog also mused on the new ways of interacting with customers in the healthcare space. Dexcom, a healthcare company that makes devices for diabetics, used Nick Jonas as a pitchman in its first-ever Super Bowl ad to promote the Decom G6, a device that uses a sensor on a user’s skin to measure blood sugar levels, which is then transmitted to a smartphone app for monitoring. The advertisement coincides with the growing trend of healthcare consumerism, which refers to consumers being in control of their own health data through wearables and apps, and increasingly in control of the experiences that constitute a coordinated healthcare journey.

In case you either missed the game – or just the commercials – here’s a compilation of every ad from Super Bowl LV. As for the game itself, all the buzz is about Brady and his growing list of Super Bowl records from his 10 appearances (and seven wins). For a sense of how long Brady’s been winning Super Bowls, prominent brands which aired commercials during his first Super Bowl win in 2002 include Blockbuster, AOL, Gateway Computers and a Circuit City ad promoting the ease of finding this strange new thing called “broadband.”

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