The time machine Super Bowl

Getty Images
Getty Images

Which way is it headed?

Well, here we are, the Monday after the Super Bowl again. 

It’s strange to think that the 2020 Super Bowl was the last time Americans all did something together – before Covid sent us off to our individual homes, rooms and screens. The notion of eating nachos together (with friends! who don’t live with you! in the very same room!) feels foreign and wonderful. Maybe we’ll get back there soon. 

Maybe we don’t need to wait. Because this year’s Super Bowl ads teleported us back to a time of comfortable certainty, before everything went sideways. Before we realized, the hard way, that simple things we took for granted, like having friends over to sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch, are not our birthright. Before we stopped having a sense of what the future holds.

There was a strong undercurrent of emotional and cultural time travel to the ads this year. Maybe it’s 1980, and Dolly Parton is making a movie about #MeToo 40 years before the movement. Maybe it’s 1990 and we’re watching Edward Scissorhands – a romance about isolation – before we learned all about isolation. Maybe it’s 1992 and Wayne and Garth are podcasting from mom’s basement. Maybe it’s 1996, and “I love you, man” is viral before going “viral” was a thing (pun intended).

Most years, it feels like Super Bowl ads were created in a cultural vacuum, with the game as the only context (probably because of the cost). But now, the stakes are even higher because we can’t just make great advertising anymore. We have to “win” the Super Bowl by landing in the Top Ten and best reviewed spots to feel like a success; to justify that enormous price tag.

This competition leads brands to “game” creative development. In the past, this has led to Super Bowl ads about Super Bowl ads, or a heavy reliance on co-opting pop culture and memes to find a shortcut to resonance.

Past years’ work has the fingerprints of brand planners looking for insights not into the human condition in the context of the brand, but into what makes Super Bowl ads blow up on Ad Meter. (Disclosure: I have done this as a brand planner.)

But this year’s work feels refreshingly kind-hearted. Like we’ve set the winning-the-zeitgeist-arm-race aside and made ads for humans first, Super Bowl second.

Yes, there are celebrities and cultural call-backs everywhere. But this year felt a little less frenetic, a little more empathetic. Less about comedy and more about comforts. Less about the meme of the day and more about the safety of memory. We can have it all in our emotional PJ’s (Frito Lay), while being emotional billionaires (Stella Artois), with candy that’s also an apology (M&M).

The big question isn’t really about Super Bowl advertising. Rather, it’s what we are going back to as we (presumably, hopefully, please please please) enter an era of renewal? 

The notion that we’ll return to the way things were helped a lot of us get through this most difficult of years. But it’s not realistic. There won’t be a “new normal”. Only new. Only renewal.

Maybe in a year, I’ll be able to say we’ve used this horrible rug pull of a year to learn to hold on to things worth holding on to, and to reinvent things that have long required reinventing — with brands playing a meaningful role in that essential undertaking.

The Super Bowl spots this year feel like a manifestation of our collective desire to find our way back. But I’d like to believe that the essential next step is to find our way forward. 

Craig Bagno is EVP, Global Strategy Director at McCann Worldgroup

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