The Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs played a big football game on Sunday. But for many viewers, the real action was happening between the plays.
Yes, the ads.
Watching the Super Bowl’s over-the-top, star-studded commercials is nearly as time-honored a tradition as watching the game itself. The coveted spots typically air to upward of 100 million viewers, and this year, companies shelled out $6 to $7 million to broadcast their 30-second spectacles.
So what kind of commercials are memorable enough to justify that kind of price tag?
“What makes a good Super Bowl ad is one that breaks through the clutter,” said Alyssa Toro, chief creative officer at Connelly Partners, a Boston-based advertising and marketing agency. “Super Bowl ads are typically very loud, very gregarious. People want to be entertained obviously, they’re very heavy on celebrity. But as somebody who’s in the industry, I’m always looking for the ones that are smart and a little quieter.”
With that in mind, we broke down the trends that stood out this year and highlighted some of the standouts.
Back in time
Did somebody say reunion?
A number of the Super Bowl commercials revived their star’s biggest roles. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul stepped back into their “Breaking Bad” characters for a spot with PopCorners, hawking air-popped chips from their desert RV instead of meth. Michelob ULTRA did a spin on 1980′s “Caddyshack,” with Serena Williams, Bryan Cox, and a slew of professional athletes taking to the putting green.
In a fan favorite, Alicia Silverstone donned a yellow plaid suit in an homage to her character from 1995′s “Clueless” in a spot for e-commerce platform Rakuten.
Why the sudden desire for brands to go retro? “There’s a lot of nostalgia going on right now, which I think is probably because we need it,” said Toro. “There’s craziness in the world, and a lot of negativity. So I think nostalgia makes us feel better.”
Several of the commercials that aired Sunday represented the culmination of weeks — if not months — of lead-up.
Locally, the buzz began last month, when people spotted Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at a Medford Dunkin’s, filming what many assumed would be the Canton-based breakfast chain’s first-ever Super Bowl ad. And sure enough, in a prime spot early in the first quarter, we see the Cambridge native — who has essentially been free advertising for Dunkin’ for years — working the drive-through window, juggling bagel orders and posing for selfies with shocked customers. Until his even-bigger-celebrity wife pulls up, wondering what on earth he is doing here, and orders him into the car (but not until he grabs her a glazed donut).
Fabric softener brand Downy also teased its ad, back in mid-December, with an anonymous frontman, face wrapped in a blue hoodie, seemingly unwilling to commit to being a spokesperson without testing for himself if the laundry product could really keep clothes smelling fresh for 12 weeks. (Of course, the celebrity, eventually unveiled as actor Danny McBride, emerged from the experiment confident in the “scent beads.”)
Meanwhile, M&Ms announced in late January that they were ditching their multicolored “spokescandies” in favor of star Maya Rudolph, sending the confection company into the depths of the culture wars. This sparked buzz weeks before the actual premiere of the ad — which ended up featuring the “spokescandies” after all — but also Rudolph hawking... chocolate-covered clams? (The spokescandies were quickly re-hired.)
“You have extra visibility and reach by getting it shared before the Super Bowl,” said Bruce Mittman, CEO of Needham-based marketing agency Mittcom. “If you can extend the eyeballs, then you’ve really reinforced your investment.”
Take it offline
Several brands incorporated multimedia elements to their ads. Mr. Peanut, for instance, called on comedian Jeff Ross to lead a “roast” of the bespectacled legume, while social media users could take their best shots at the salty snack for the chance to win $10,000.
In one of the ads for DraftKings, the Boston-based sports betting company teamed up with Molson Coors to allow users to place bets on what would happen in the beer company’s ad, which pitted Miller Lite against Coors Lite. Kia’s commercial, meanwhile, tracked a father as he raced to get his baby’s favorite binky; three extensions of the storyline were posted on the carmaker’s TikTok account.
Kimberley Ring, a marketing professor at Suffolk University, said this “digital lift” strategy is designed to give brands an engagement boost while keeping viewers entertained.
“The goal is to try to blend the ad with the other places you want them to go,” said Ring. “It’s very gamey, very interactive — bringing the consumer in, making them feel invested in it.”
A broad spectrum
Though just about every commercial relied on a jolt of star power, the celebrities themselves ran the gamut: Old, young, and in-between; athletes, actors, and meme stars.
“There’s a good sort of cross-section,” said Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen, a Boston-based ad agency. Steve Martin (who appeared in Pepsi’s ad) may appeal to an older crowd, while Gen Z viewers may be more familiar with someone like rapper Jack Harlow, who touted Doritos.
Brands can also now cash in on a star’s sudden cachet with a rapid turnaround. Case in point: Jennifer Coolidge, who’s been on a hot streak since her turn in “White Lotus,” starred in an ad for the makeup brand e.l.f. “It doesn’t take a year or six months to plan, record, and do a Super Bowl ad,” said Ring. “Everything is so fast now.”
No matter which celebrity a brand picks for their Super Bowl spotlight, it’s crucial that they have a substantial reach of their own, in order to compete for attention in the social media age, says Graff.
“You’re going to see a little less of babies and animals and dogs and Clydesdales,” said Graff. “The reality is, Clydesdales don’t have Instagram followers.” (Indeed, the horses, long a staple of Budweiser’s Super Bowl ads, make only the briefest of appearances at the start of this year’s spot for the beer.)
Sure, not every ad had the makings of a viral sensation, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t entertaining (or, in the case of Sam Adams, a shameless appeal to Bostonian viewers). Check out some of the other memorable commercials below, and let us know your favorites.
Sam Adams: No list would be complete without the Sam Adams “Your Cousin From Boston” commercial, which this year dares to imagine a brighter, friendlier Beantown, and features a familiar face or two. A beer can dream, can’t it?
General Motors and Netflix: The two brands joined forces to promote the streamer’s push to include more electric vehicles in its shows, with Will Ferrell showing what the greener cars might look like in Netflix hits like “Squid Game” and “Bridgerton.”
Google Pixel: Amy Schumer, Doja Cat, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all show how the cell phone can wipe away unfortunate photo-bombers (or, in Schumer’s case, her exes).
Squarespace: Adam Driver leaned into his weirder side with this ad for the “website that makes websites,” multiplying into a sea of Adam Drivers before condensing into one “singularity.”
T-Mobile: John Travolta teamed up with “Scrubs” stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison for a rendition of “Summer Nights” from “Grease” — with reworked lyrics to hype up the phone brand.
FanDuel: The sportsbook company enlisted one-time Patriots legend Rob Gronkowski to achieve the “Kick of Destiny,” offering a $10 million payout if the tight end could punt a field goal live during the game. (Spoiler alert: He missed.)