Super Bowl LI: The good, the bad, the boring

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  • 2/6/2017
    It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That single shining moment when the rest of the world suddenly cares about advertising and marketing as much as I do!

    However, when looking at the offerings shown last night, I find myself disappointed. Every year I look to the Super Bowl to be the pinnacle of my industry—a relentless cavalcade of smart, funny, impactful advertising that connects and inspires the viewers. And every year I am increasingly let down.

    There’s reasons for this (fragmentation of the market, reduced marketing budgets, diminishing ROI, the death of “event TV,” are among the top contenders), but I think the real reason is fear. The fear of spending what is, even for big worldwide brands, an appreciable amount of money for a mere 30 seconds.

    This fear has lead to a host of safe, predictable and expected commercials. No one will get fired for these commercials, and that seems like the best outcome.

    As with most years, Super Bowl commercials seem to fall into very predictable categories: humorous, cute, action/adventure, viral stunt, heartwarming/inspirational and movie trailer.


    These commercials strive to be funny and memorable. Being that what’s funny to one person isn’t funny to the next, rarely are these commercials beloved to everyone. The one’s I thought stood out were:
    • Fabreze: Their “Halftime Bathroom Break” was the perfect combination of humor and timing. Since it aired shortly before halftime it resonated with viewers in a unique, engaging fashion. Plus, it’s one of the few spots that actually highlighted the brand’s key attributes.
    • Snickers: Subtle and funny, I really appreciate how the brand has continued to evolve the “You’re not you when you’re hungry” theme in new and engaging ways. Not to mention that it’s the first time a brand has done a live commercial on the Super Bowl.
    • Mr. Clean: I’ll admit that I found Mr. Clean doing a sexy dance a little off-putting and gross (Side note, when did his pants get so tight?), but the payoff with the dorky husband getting some loving from his wife pulled it out of trite and insulting for me.


    Cute commercials work to make you go “ahhhhh” instead of laugh out loud. Imagine a Clydesdale falling in love with a puppy and there you have it. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single commercial that I would put in the cute category this year.


    These commercials are generally for sports cars and mimic the look and feel of a James Bond film.
    • Wix: Who doesn’t love The Transporter and Wonder Woman kicking bad guy ass while a hapless chef creates a website in the back room? This fairly expected spot redeems itself by showing the flexibility and versatility of the product in the end.
    • WeatherTech: Every year I am perplexed that a company that makes floor liners would spend millions on the production and airing of Super Bowl commercials. That said, I actually found their commercial more engaging and exciting than anything Alfa Romeo aired all night.


    A commercial filmed “live” with “real people” reacting “in the moment” to something planned or planted by the brand. While I remain extremely skeptical about how instantaneous these spots really are, I can’t deny that they’re effective. Especially when dealing with anyone in the military, such as:

    • Hyundai: Their spot showing how deployed soldiers got to virtually enjoy the Super Bowl with their loved ones felt more authentic than many I’ve seen.


    Designed to lift you up or fill you with pride, there were a surprising number of these commercials this year. More surprising yet was that many of them worked.
    • Michelin Tire: Their “homesick” spot supports their ongoing theme of “When it matters most, we get you there.” Plus, it was another rare spot that highlighted some of the actual product attributes of the brand.
    • Honda: The talking yearbook spot was brilliant and funny. My only criticism is that the actual execution overshadowed the inspirational message.
    • Audi: Their “What do I tell my daughter?” was the rare car commercial that didn’t show sexy cars whipping around hairpin curves in the mountains. This spot did a great job of highlighting the brand’s dedication to equal pay without coming across as overly self-serving or preachy.


    Studios used to wait until the Super Bowl to air commercials for their biggest upcoming blockbusters, but now it seems like they advertise in the Super Bowl out of habit. All four of the movies were sequels and/or shared universe films so there was little new to reveal.


    Finally, in addition to those listed above, this year there was an entirely new category of commercial: controversial! It’s not uncommon for brands to sneak in little references to social issues (like Google did by showing a gay pride flag in the beginning of their Google Home spot), but several brands appeared to openly attack the current conservative administration and/or President Donald Trump directly.
    • It’s a 10 Haircare: A brand that I had never heard of unabashedly opened fire with their opening line, “America, we’re in for at least four years of awful hair.” However, the spot itself was tongue-in-cheek and fun. I suspect that Republicans and Democrats alike got a chuckle out of this one.
    • Budweiser: The brand got pushback on this spot during its pre-lease, which absolutely puzzles me. Any other year and this commercial would have been lauded as the epitome of American values: Poor boy comes to America, faces adversity and, through hard work and luck, achieves the American dream.
    • AirBNB: Their “We Accept” spot feels like a direct attack on the Trump administration and the recent Muslim travel ban. Simple, smart and engaging, this commercial is likely to engage and energize those who use their service while upsetting a portion of the viewership that aren’t customers anyway.
    • 84 Lumber: The big thumb in President Trump’s eye. It’s hard to read this commercial as anything other than a blistering repudiation of President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric of the past 18 months. 84 Lumber itself claims it’s simply an ode to everyone who has the grit and determination to achieve a goal. While I applaud the brand standing up for what must be deeply held convictions about immigration and the American dream, I seriously wonder about the wisdom of this spot. 84 Lumber sells almost exclusively to builders and contractors, which are generally deep red President Trump supporters. It’s possible that I’m underestimating their Latino customer base, but I suspect this spot will really hurt their bottom line for the short- to medium-term. I’m actually surprised that President Trump hasn’t personally tweeted about the commercial yet.
    It’s telling that the commercial that generated the most buzz and day-after conversation wasn’t funny, cute or exciting. Instead it was a spot that tapped into the current national conversation about race and immigration and instantly transformed the brand into something way more than a place to buy nails and boards. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year.

    Interested in learning more about our thoughts on the ads this year? Listen to our corresponding podcast about which commercials we thought fell flat or made an impact. 
    About the author::
    Craig Israel is the Creative Director at thunder::tech. He steers creative strategy for the agency and leads a team of rock stars who regularly create crazy beautiful and stupid impactful work. Taller than average.
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