The final verdict on Super Bowl LI: Politics, giggles and the middle of the road

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Our team of international creative experts applauded "principled stands," "protest ads" and "damn-near magical drones."

To get industry snapshots of the Super Bowl this year, Campaign invited a dozen creative leaders from around the world to share their reviews of the Big Game. On Monday, we revealed their favorite ads, including Squarespace, Budweiser and Audi, and the ads that they'd rather forget.

Super Bowl 2017 will be remembered as the year that brands took purposeful messaging into politics, pushing ads that some panelists described as messages of protest. The best ads made their $5-million-per-30-second investment count, they said, whether by taking a stand or simply sharing cheer and entertainment.

Here are their game-night impressions:

  Lars Bastholm, global CCO, Google Zoo

Not unexpectedly, this year's crop of Super Bowl ads had brands commenting on the political situation in the US. Some more subtly than others—I'm looking at you, It's a 10 Hair Care. Whether through a fantastic stroke of lucky timing or by brilliant foresight, Budweiser's immigrant tale nailed the theme of the US as a country built by immigrants. My close runner-up, Audi, made a beautiful spot about equality that feels, but hopefully isn't, timeless. Rounding out my top 3 is the Skittles spot, solely because it was cute and made me giggle. We need a bit of that too right now.

  Jason Bagley, executive creative director, Wieden+Kennedy Portland

It's a lot of pressure for both client and agency to make a Super Bowl spot, so I applaud those who put themselves out there and took the risk. The Super Bowl is an opportunity for brands and agencies to show off—to entertain, surprise, and inspire with their very best creativity. So overall, it's disappointing how not only this year, but most years, the majority of brands resort to very unoriginal formulas—old ideas wearing new clothes. They're basically resorting to the lowest common denominator to try to guarantee they don't fail. The result is a lot of work that's not terrible, but isn't great either. I would love to see more brands and agencies trying to win big, instead of trying not to fail. There's so much talent, and so much creativity in our industry and among our clients, that I know we could do so much better overall. So let's do that! Everyone agree? OK, good.  

  Margaret Johnson, CCO, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Art imitates life, and thanks to current events, many of the big anthem spots (Budweiser, Airbnb) celebrating American melting-pot values and generosity felt like protest ads.

Marketers who took principled stands stood out. Audi took on pay inequality. Budweiser told a story about immigration, essentially reminding America that a German immigrant brought the most American of beers to your living room today. Airbnb pushed a similar message. These are themes that concern so many of us in adland in particular, as we work to overcome the 3 percent situation and pay inequality for female creative directors and to retain foreign talent who bring a global perspective to our work.

If these ads are effective, perhaps America will wake up on Monday a little more enlightened and empathetic.

  Raj Kamble, founder/CCO, Famous Innovations, India

Diversity was a recurring theme at Super Bowl 51 and brands like Google, Airbnb deserve applause for that. But, overall, this year was a bit of a let down with only Audi and Budweiser standing out as two memorable spots. I had my hopes high for Snickers with their Live commercial, but the whole staged gaffe lacked freshness. GoDaddy also pulled a lazy one with an insight from 5 years ago. I don't know if America's sensitive political environment is to be blamed, but brands seemed to have played it safe this year. I missed some of the big daddies of the Super Bowl like Doritos, Taco Bell and Jeep. And as much as I love the "America is Beautiful" film, I wish Coca-Cola had done a new one. Tiffany & Co. was a welcome surprise with their very elegant and simple film. To Febreze, TurboTax and Kiawhat were you thinking? All in all, was it pleasant, emotional and entertaining? Yes. But I don't see any films this year making it to the all-time Super Bowl greats.

  Amir Kassaei, global CCO, DDB Worldwide 

I believe the best advertising happened in the fourth quarter, as the Patriots made a historic comeback nobody believed would happen. And this kind of magic was missing on almost all the Super Bowl ads.

If I have to pick one? I would choose the 84 Lumber 'Journey' ad. Why?

Because the best advertising is always based on a relevant truth. It is embedded in real life and does not want to please the so-called experts. It will connect to people and move them and will let them think. Advertising is only an expression of our culture and society and for that it has to be at the pulse like this ad is.

  David Kolbusz, CCO, Droga5, London

I'm not typically a fan of lofty brand messaging that doesn't have anything to do with the product it's selling, but with the world under threat of a backlash against progressivism which has manifested itself in some truly ugly behavior from a vocal contingent who feel a world of privilege they once knew slipping away from them, I'm inclined to say the best ads—or rather—the most important ads in the game were the protest ads. With the world's biggest brands acting as our new nation-states they are the first line of defense against small-minded isolationism. Anyone who has the guts to come out and talk about what's right and wrong in a world where an emboldened mass of malcontents feel ready to boycott at the drop of a hat, deserves a round of applause.

  Nils Leonard, former chairman and CCO of Grey London

The Dirty Birds. That means something else where I come from.

We know about it here, the Super Bowl. But not really. What we do know is that it's big. Everyone watches it and if it's anything like the UK's one-and-only "actually gather physically in one room and don't skip all the ads event (Christmas)" you find yourself looking at the world and praying for a moment that just lifts above the corporate twaddle and moves you.

Creativity is drawn to problems. It will have been tempting to drive the cultural temperature into all of these briefs, but the problem is that if you're really going to go at that, you have to take the gloves off to win. And the truth is that most brands just aren't up for that. So we've ended up with a nod to diversity (hats off Audi), or well directed, veiled salutes to immigration from AirBnb and Bud that will drive traffic but don't put the hairs up on your arms.

To create pure and ferocious entertainment would have been the real win tonight, and in the hunt for new, the half time winner for me was IBM's incredible drone show with Lady Gaga.

So maybe that moment we're all looking for isn't in an ad. It's in the game.

A friend told me that the Falcons are known as The Dirty Birds. And that the favorites, the Patriots, basically put on their make up in The White House. Well, the way I see it is The Dirty Birds aren't more talented than their pretty opponents, they just have no fear. This is their one shot. They don't give a shit about the way it's supposed to be and they've torn apart the rock star on the other team. Scrappy and hungry, with new ideas and energy, they turned the biggest game on its side. The ones with something to prove often do.

Where are the Dirty Birds in our industry? The ones unafraid to give it all a kick in the nuts. It's great but it's all too comfortable, too Brady. We need reminding that the chance to win the Super Bowl is the chance to make the most famous creative totem on the planet. There's a new way to do this whole thing. From the people that get the brief, to the brands that play the game, to the work that makes the cut. To win big, we just have to get dirty.

  Fernando Machado, SVP, global brand management, Burger King

I don't think this Super Bowl will be remembered as the Super Bowl for one specific ad. But surely there were a couple of nice spots. It is great to see more and more brands going beyond function and features by putting forward purposeful statements like Audi, Budweiser and even Mr. Clean (with the "Clean Bae").

I confess I kept going back and forth between Skittles and Audi as my favorite spot. I ended up with Skittles as No. 1 because they have been pretty consistent with their approach and created something that truly entertains. Audi had a very powerful spot, beautifully crafted, but I wish the storytelling was as powerful as the message.

When it comes to my least favorite, I guess I would go with all the spots that I cannot even remember watching. Airing a forgettable spot during the Super Bowl with an expensive bill is completely unproductive and wasteful. Unfortunately every year there are plenty of ads that fall in this bucket. I will not point to any specific ones because I cannot even recall what they are.

  Tham Khai Meng, worldwide CCO, Ogilvy

The ads have overshadowed the Super Bowl in recent years, but this year it was all about the game. That's how it should be, I think. Brady and Belichick should be the names on everyone's lips, not Bernbach and Burnett.

Despite the bleeding-edge camera work and instantaneous graphics, the Super Bowl is a throwback to an earlier era of mass media. Why? It's the only night of the year when a sizable chunk of America can be found watching the same thing on TV, and tonight, the programming itself lived up to the audience. It was one of the best games of all time punctuated by one of the finest half-time shows the NFL has ever put on. In fact, that may have been the best advertisement of the night, at least for Pepsi—the sponsor—and Intel—the makers of the damn-near magical drones that lit up the sky. Also: hat tip to "Genius" for incorporating an iconic Lady Gaga melody in the spot that ran right after her performance. Nicely orchestrated.

The ads also lived up to the mass media impact of the Super Bowl. Not for their quality, which was fine and nothing more than that, but for their message. America heard its biggest brands state clearly and with one voice that we are a diverse, united, tolerant and loving nation. Those were table stakes in earlier eras, but during this time, our industry felt the need to reassert some first principles. I'm glad we did.

  Josefine Richards, creative director, Ingo, Stockholm

It's 4:32 a.m. in Stockholm and the game has just finished. I decided to make it an official Ingo all-nighter and join in with mass-America while consuming endless Doritos, chicken wings, guacamole and beer. Turns out to be a great idea.

It's crazy how hard it is for the spots to make an impact. The game is intense, the beer is flowing and your buddies are all there. The competition is all special effects and celebrities and hit songs.

Watching the ads in the context of the four-hour game is crucial, but you can't forget there is a shit-storm going on. Even if we all need a laugh right now, the best spots were the ones that took a stand. Not the one-hit wonders.

And the one that I think did it the best was Budweiser.

We can always learn from history. It tends to repeat itself. The problem is when all the people that were there are dead, who do we trust to tell us how things were? Without the wisdom of our ancestors, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

As marketers we help big brands tell a lot of stories and when people care about those brands they listen. That creates a responsibility. Budweiser has won the hearts of Americans for 29 Super Bowl years with jokes and occasional puppy-love, but yes, now is the time for the serious talk.

The ad "Born The Hard Way" is beautifully told and makes the lessons of history impossible to ignore.

Even if Budweiser didn't mean to be political, it for sure feels like it came at the right time.

Immigrants in the mid 1800's, like Busch, were met with open racism and resentment. No doubt many Americans at the time worried that newcomers would screw up the national identity. But they ultimately opened their hearts. The result is a country full of great brands and great ideas. Keep being open America. Keep the dream alive.

  Jureeporn Thaidumrong, CCO, Grey NudeJeh, Thailand

This year felt like many advertisers relied on celebrities and A-list Hollywood actors.

Also, most of the ads that were too long and "too worthy" didn't make the cut for me: You're watching the football. It's the toilet break.

So if you don't catch my attention or draw me in quickly, the toilet is where I'll be heading. Rather than being glued in front of the TV, waiting for a long ad to deliver a motivational, emotional or deep message to me. No matter how well produced it is, I'm not waiting. It's time for a beer refill ...