In dark times, brands are turning to humor to lighten Super Bowl LII's mood

With its huge audience and huge costs, Super Bowl is not the branding silver bullet many think it is, says the president of System1, NA.

On the surface, Super Bowl LII looks like just another annual installment of the world’s biggest advertising event—and a very profitable one, too. NBC is looking to make over $500 million in ad revenue, with 30-second slots costing on average $7 million (an increase of $2 million). But for brands and agencies, it’s often like the first day of school: a time to reinforce or refresh their brand image and maybe try something new and big. 

While much has been written about the decline of live television viewing (including NFL ratings this season), and in turn the demise of TV advertising, when it comes to the Super Bowl, this is does not hold true. On the whole, Super Bowl viewership has grown exponentially over the past decade, with an increase of 8 million viewers since 2007 to 111 million in 2017. Super Bowl is the exception to this recent shift in media spend, simply due to the concentrated size of audience, focused attention of their eyeballs and the fact that most fans will see your ad at the exact same time.

But the sheer size of the audience also brings its risks and challenges. The broad demographics of the Game mean that there is likely no one ad that will appeal to everyone. Demographic obstacles are compounded by the sentiment of the day. An ad that may have worked last year may not work this year. For example: in the age of #MeToo and Trump politics, ads of a sexist or political nature will likely end up polarizing many or, at best, just fall flat with audiences. Thus, with its huge audience and huge costs, Super Bowl is not the branding silver bullet many think it is.  

Given all these factors, here's how brands are approaching Super Bowl advertising this year: 

Brands will avoid the political discourse
Super Bowl advertising is also always a weathervane for cultural trends. And if the US finds itself in a culture war—whether it’s over Donald Trump, sexual harassment or immigration—advertising finds itself taking sides whether it plans to or not. In Trump’s America, the helter-skelter pace of the news cycle is way faster than ad development speeds. Last year, for instance, several brands making ads explicitly or implicitly about immigration found themselves the center of attention after Trump’s executive order limiting arrivals from certain countries. 

The challenge with political ads is that—when done wrong—they are often politically polarizing. It’s an awkward place for a brand to pit itself on one side of a political argument and possibly turn some customers against them. Americans are already fatigued from the constant and ongoing deluge of political news. This year, Super Bowl advertisers are smartly staying away from political messages from which consumers are already exhausted. 

Turning to humor
In our analysis of Super Bowl ads last year, the top three spots went to brands with humor ads. One of our favorites was Mr. Clean’s "Cleaner of Your Dreams." It’s the ad that put the "ass" in "distinctive asset." Audiences had never seen the instantly recognizable Mr. Clean character like this before. The storytelling and comic twist kept the ad from feeling gratuitous, which is why "Cleaner of Your Dreams" was one of the most talked-about ads of Super Bowl—a cheeky commercial that never struck a bum note. 

We’re already seeing really funny ads this year like Fabreze’s "His (bleep) don’t stink." Again, this makes sense, given the current climate in the US—humor unites, politics divides. The Super Bowl is the most united day of the year in America, so it is smart for brands to focus on entertaining through driving happiness.

Drafting off the buzz
A few brands have announced their decision to not advertise during this year’s game, but to instead take advantage of the excitement and news around Super Bowl to push online-only creative. But, does this work? Skittle’s possible Super Bowl ads are a good example of this, but it’s yet to be seen whether the investment in this non-Super Bowl/Super Bowl ad will lead to long-term brand growth for the business. Four ads in the series so far have reaped around 350,000 views on YouTube. While that’s an admirable number, that is in no way a match for the Big Game’s viewership. 

But having a strategy to advertise around the Super Bowl, without spending the money on a spot during the big game, can still help brands garner a lot of attention by riding on the coattails of the event, especially with the focus that is given to advertising across media during the weeks leading up to the game.

Nostalgia and absurdity
One convention in entertainment that seems to grow each year is that of nostalgia. We see it with remakes of old movies in Hollywood and increasingly reboots of television shows that have not aired an original episode in over a decade…or two. "Will & Grace," "Roseanne" and now "Murphy Brown" are all sitcoms that are back to revisit us with new episodes in 2018. With anxiety running high for many these days, enjoying the memories of simpler times—even if those times were just the 1990s— can bring familiar comfort. Similarly, one of the more anticipated ads for this Super Bowl is Pepsi’s nod to the 1992 ad featuring Cindy Crawford—this time also featuring her 18-year-old son.

The most highly coveted demographic of advertisers is of course millennials. It is perhaps no surprise that Skittles would use absurd humor and the quirky approach of only making an ad for one person, however it is exactly this type of bizarre wit and unusual behavior that resonates with both Gen Y & Gen Z. While creating a splash in targeting those audiences online may make a lot of sense, taking the plunge to spend up to $7 million for a commercial during the game that drives an audience with a wider age-range may not.

Brent Snider is President of System1 Group North America.

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