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Super Bowl ads were serious business

Proctor & Gamble turned the taunt “You run like a girl” on its head and was praised for its empowering theme.

This year’s Super Bowl commercials were heavier than Vince Wilfork and the rest of the Patriots’ defensive line put together. Or at least, that’s how many fans felt after a number of companies ditched the usual formula of laughs and visual pyrotechnics in favor of dead-serious commercials that went straight for the heart, a strategy that brought mixed results.

In reality, there were plenty of funny ads on Sunday — see Doritos’ rocket pig and Fiat’s little blue pill — but the running online conversation seemed fixated on a handful of solemn offerings.

“This is the most emotional Super Bowl I can remember when it comes to advertising,” said Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “When we think of the Super Bowl, we usually think of high-end, clever, creative spots that really entertain, and we saw far fewer of those.”

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After a series of off-the-field controversies — including cases of domestic violence — rocked the National Football League earlier this season, ad agencies were wary of standing out with an overly provocative or sexualized commercial, Rucker said. Instead, many tried to differentiate themselves by tackling weighty topics that advertisers usually avoid. But the net effect of so many trying to hit the same note was a feeling of unrelenting seriousness, and many viewers’ eyes started to glaze over.

“For the most part, brands played it safe,” Rucker said. “Where were the off-the-wall ideas that stand out, that we’ll remember 10 years from now? I’m not sure we saw any of that ‘Advertising Hall of Fame’ creativity this year.”

Some of the serious ads seemed to succeed, especially those that pushed back against damaging stereotypes. The “Like A Girl” spot from Proctor & Gamble’s Always brand, which turned the playground insult “You run like a girl” on its head, won high marks for its empowering theme. (A young girl in the ad who says that running like a girl means running as fast as you can was a particular hit on social media.)

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In a poll conducted by the Needham-based video metrics firm Extreme Reach Inc., the Always ad scored above 10 percent in its “brand lift” metric, meaning consumers reported they were that much more likely to buy Always products after seeing the spot.

Another feel-good spot, from Coca-Cola, also performed well. In the commercial, a worker spills Coke on an Internet server, magically transforming nasty text messages and comments into affirming compliments.

And Dove had a winner with its ad arguing that tenderness only makes a father more manly, not less.

But other brands found only peril when they veered toward the emotional.

Perhaps the most-discussed ad this year, a Nationwide Insurance spot about a boy who never grew up because he drowned in a bathtub or ingested toxic cleaning chemicals, was talked about for the wrong reasons. While the intention was noble — raising awareness of preventable household deaths — the pitch-black ending landed like a gut punch, leaving viewers puzzled about what to take away other than grief.

Parents, in particular, objected.

“After the [Nationwide] ad, my kids kept asking all these somber questions about horrible things, which I didn’t really want to answer in the middle of the Super Bowl,” said Alyssa Toro, chief creative officer at the Boston ad agency Connelly Partners. “It was a decent execution, but maybe it shouldn’t have been aired during the Super Bowl.”

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Unfortunately for Nationwide, its dark ad outshined its funny one, in which Mindy Kaling thinks she is invisible and tries to kiss Matt Damon — who can see her just fine and is “absolutely not” interested, thank you.

The net result of the two ads meant the company scored a tiny brand lift of just 1 percent, according to Extreme Reach.

Nissan’s commercial, in which a race car-driver father is away on the circuit for much of his son’s life but redeems himself when he picks his son up from high school in a brand new Nissan, was another dud in the emotional genre. Even though it had similar themes to Dove’s successful fatherhood spot, viewers appeared to get hung up on the unbelievable premise that a ride home in the right brand of car could clear the conscience of absentee fathers everywhere.

The flop put Nissan among a handful of brands to score negatively on Extreme Reach’s “brand lift” metric, meaning consumers were actually less likely to buy a Nissan after seeing the ad. Ouch.

Like Rucker, Toro, of Connelly Partners, said she was left wanting for a truly great ad on Sunday.

Indeed, the best-performing ads this year were fairly straightforward, with movie previews dominating Extreme Reach’s top 10.

“It was all beautiful execution and well-thought-out strategy,” Toro said, “but I didn’t see anything that was a fantastic idea.”

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Nationwide’s Super Bowl ad featuring Mindy Kaling was deemed a success by rating groups.AP/Associated Press

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielAdams86.