Super Bowl Ads: The Good, the Weird, and the Ugly

Budweiser’s 2014 Super Bowl commercial “Puppy Love” Photograph by Anheuser-Busch via AP Photo

Each year, the Super Bowl becomes the showplace for ads trying to outdo one another in creative genius and marketing prowess. And each year there are winners that manage to strike the right balance between creativity and marketing, there are losers that fail to strike a chord with the audience, and there are ads that are completely puzzling to the rest of us. This year was no exception: Some ads were good, some bad, and some—just plain weird.

The Good: Several factors make Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” a great commercial. First, it has a narrative that’s easy to understand (something that cannot be said about many other Super Bowl ads) and is engaging, an effect achieved by featuring a love story between a cute puppy and a majestic Clydesdale (by the way, using animals in ads to evoke emotions is a time-tested advertising trick). It’s masterfully executed, maintaining the right balance between creativity and message (a comment that cannot be made about many Super Bowl ads), while Passenger’s Let Her Go unites the imagery and the narrative.

What’s more, the story is tied to the brand; the phrase “best buds” gives a different nuance to the brand name. And the use of Clydesdale horses as an integral part of the ad enables Budweiser to maintain continuity and build a consistent image in consumers’ minds—yet another rarity in Super Bowl ads as too many companies try to rise to the top by coming up with a new theme every year.

The Weird: Kia’s “The Truth” had the potential to be a good commercial. The first half of the ad was creative and on point, with Laurence Fishburne taking on the role of Morpheus offering a naive couple a blue-red choice representing the difference between traditional luxury and Kia’s “true” luxury. “Rethinking luxury” is a creative approach that’s aligned with Kia’s efforts to break into the luxury market. But all is lost when Morpheus starts singing Puccini’s Nessun Dorma. That’s when the vast majority of Matrix fans space out and the rest of us are too busy wondering what happened to Morpheus to think about Kia.

The second part of the ad (sans Morpheus singing) was also good, reminiscent of Lexus and Acura commercials a decade ago. But the Matrix theme of the first part and the classic opera theme of the second part are too disjointed, targeting different customers. While both The Matrix and Puccini have their following, the intersection of the two results in a rather small target market. It would have made more sense to create two good 30-second spots instead of an ad that left viewers wondering about Morpheus’s metamorphosis rather than thinking about Kia’s luxury.

The Ugly: Maserati’sStrike” is where creativity defies common marketing sense. Despite the extra length (it ran for 90 seconds), the ad failed to get a clear message across. It was designed to introduce Maserati’s new model Ghibli to the U.S. market. Yet it failed to communicate to potential buyers what the new car is about, who should be driving it, and why. While Budweiser’s ad was about love and friendship—themes anyone can relate to—Maserati’s ad was about preparing and striking, something that has meaning for Maserati’s management whose press release described Ghibli as “capable of striking against the status quo.” It’s somewhat sad to categorize Maserati’s ad as “ugly” because the car itself is not. Maserati might have done better simply showing the car on the road rather than in this admittedly poetic yet utterly convoluted ad.

The Super Bowl, with its 100 million-plus viewers and the media buzz surrounding the commercials, is a truly unique place to launch a new product or reaffirm an existing brand. Yet simply shelling out $4 million and coming up with a “creative” situation that frequently features a celebrity is not enough. To take full advantage of this marketing opportunity, commercials should first and foremost have a clear strategy that drives the creative execution, not vice versa.

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