2021 Super Bowl Advertising

By Tim Calkins and Derek D. Rucker

The 2021 Super Bowl was notable for some great football but, for advertisers, the more interesting challenge was the complex environment – a struggling economy, a raging pandemic, political conflict. Many of the core Super Bowl advertisers took a pass this year: Coke, Pepsi, Audi, Hyundai and others. One reason was likely the creative challenge; it is easy to say the wrong thing and offend people in this tense environment.

The pandemic didn’t show up directly in most of the Super Bowl advertising this year; we did not see masks or social distancing. However, some brands did acknowledge it through the creative and the messaging. For example, Tide suggested we should wash our clothes on occasion, Scott’s Miracle Grow and Bass Pro Shops encouraged us to spend time outside. Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade referenced the challenging year brought to us by 2020—it gave us a lot of lemons to work with.

For the 17th year, we assembled a panel of Kellogg MBA students to evaluate all the ads for effectiveness – which ones will build the business and build the brand? The panel used strategic criteria taught at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, including the ADPLAN framework for thinking about and evaluating creative executions.

Here is a look at the top and bottom grades from the panel, along with our assessment. We often agree with the scores, but sometimes have a different take on it.


The Most Effective (A)


Cheetos

The top scoring spot this year was from Cheetos, featuring Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Shaggy and the song, “It Wasn’t Me.”

The spot did well because branding and linkage were exceptionally strong. It was all about Cheetos, and the brand appeared throughout the spot.

Cheetos used a similar approach successfully last year with MC Hammer and “Don’t Touch This.” Both spots are unusual because they highlight a product problem – the bright color makes it inconvenient to eat—however they turn this attribute into a strength by using it to create a strong linkage to the brand and reinforce the value of the taste.

Put simply, Cheetos are so tasty that the crunch and “evidence” is worth the trouble.




Amazon Alexa

Amazon almost took the top spot this year with its 4th quarter ad featuring Michael B. Jordan. The spot follows Amazon’s now consistent formula for Super Bowl advertising: create an engaging spot featuring celebrities and demonstrating what Alexa can do.

This year’s execution featured the strikingly handsome Michael B. Jordan. Last year Amazon won the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review with a spot featuring Ellen and Portia de Rossi. Amazon won in 2018, too.

Its formula works because the spots have great linkage. There is no question their ads are for Amazon Alexa, and the product benefits are clear: Alexa can answer questions, read a book, order groceries, etc. Amazon has demonstrated itself as among the best of using creative executions to enhance strong messaging.


Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade

This ad is built around a simple idea. When advertising lemonade, show lemons falling from the sky! Two things contributed to the success of the spot. First, the execution is fabulous - each snippet is brilliantly done. The stadium cardboard figures getting demolished by the lemons is perfect. A bike crash is somehow transformed into something fun. This helps the spot generate positive amplification; people smile and like the message.

Second, the linkage is clear. It is hard to miss that this is a spot for Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade. This directs you towards the product, which appears like a quality deliverable.

This was also one of the few spots that even mentioned the troubles we’ve faced, noting that 2020 was a lemon of a year. Well done.




Doritos

PepsiCo has a second spot in the top group this year with Doritos. The ad, featuring a flat Matthew McConaughey, scored well with panel because it is distinctive and fun.

Moreover, the basic message comes across: you can now buy a puffy Doritos chip.

Execution was key for this spot; making McConaughey flat must have been a technical challenge. The final result was striking for the audience.




Tide

For several years we’ve watched Tide battle it out with Persil Pro-Clean on the Super Bowl. The incumbent giant ran spots highlighting its category leadership, while Persil would try to claw some market share.

Apparently that battle is over for now, at least when it comes to the Super bowl.

This year Tide used its Super Bowl ad to address a different task: encouraging people to wash their clothes more. We can imagine the research behind this spot: people are wearing the same clothes day after day during the pandemic.

In an engaging spot featuring Jason Alexander, Tide highlights the fact that your clothes are dirtier than you might think.

One note: some on our panel were concerned that people might not know Jason Alexander. We don’t see this as a problem, however, because the spot works either way. If you know who he is, great. If you don’t, it still works—and you might even be tempted to find out what this “Seinfeld” show is.




Indeed

An inspirational spot for Indeed finished in the top group. The ad embraced the challenge of finding a job, featuring people looking for a new start. The message fit current times, and the shot of the fellow dressed in a tie doing a zoom interview was particularly spot on.

Late branding might have been a problem, but Indeed’s category leadership made it less of an issue.

Competitors such as CareerBuilder and Monster have faded. The brand also benefits from high distinction in the crowded Super Bowl ad landscape—most brands used humor which allowed a more emotional play to cut through the clutter.




Reddit

A five second ad from Reddit received an A. The short ad featured the headline, “Wow, this actually worked.” To read the text, people had to track down the ad on-line, which apparently a fair number did. The text was timely, “One thing we learned from our communities last week is that underdogs can accomplish just about anything….”

If you read the text, it had several key elements we look for: distinction, benefit, linkage.




Chipotle

Talking about how your food can make the world a better place seems easy but it actually isn’t; the risk is that a brand can easily come off as preachy, out of touch and elitist. This can be a difficult path to navigate.

It is for this reason that Chipotle’s Super Bowl ad is so remarkable. The brand explained how it made the world a better place, but the deft use of a snarky teen made it all seem credible and relatable. Her line, “Are you still talking?” stands out.




Solid Spots: Grade B


ABInBev

Beer giant ABInBev didn’t run an ad for Budweiser this year. Instead, the company did two smart things. First, it announced it was donating funds to encourage Covid-19 vaccinations instead. This move generated a lot of positive PR, since few companies have made similar moves this year. Some might argue that the company should have actually run an ad about vaccinations, but it’s easy to see the flaw in such an idea. Creating demand when there is no supply can create more problems than it solves.

Second, it ran an ad encouraging people to drink beer, embracing the line, “I’ll buy you a beer.” As the category leader, ABInBev needs to grow the category, and highlighting the realness of beer might do this. People don’t say, “I’ll buy you a hard seltzer.” Linkage and attention both worked in this ad.




Rocket Mortgage

USA Today’s Ad Meter has Rocket Mortgage winning the Super Bowl with a funny spot featuring Tracy Morgan dramatizing the flaws with the line “Pretty Sure.” This spot taps into an insight that when looking at financing, most people are pretty sure it will work out, but are not certain.

We think the Kellogg panel got this one right. There is no question this is a funny, clever spot, and highly entertaining. It is also built on an insight.?

Why not give it an A? A key problem is that linkage could be stronger. On a more basic level, we are still not clear why Rocket Mortgage is better at addressing the “Pretty Sure” issue than other firms. Does the company provide a 100% guarantee? It seems unlikely. These shortcomings led the panel to drop it from the A group.




Dexcom

If you follow Super Bowl advertising, you know there is one category that doesn’t show up often: medical devices.

That makes this year’s spot by Dexcom an interesting exception. The ad features Nick Jonas, a Type 1 diabetic, and celebrates that the Dexcom blood glucose monitor doesn’t rely on needle-sticks.

The ad is distinctive and communicates a benefit. It works well.

The decision to advertise on the Super Bowl is a curious one for Dexcom – we wonder if there are less expensive ways to reach a specific group of people.




Uber Eats

In a curious move, both Uber Eats and DoorDash highlighted the importance of supporting local restaurants.

We say it is a curious move because people don’t use the companies to support local restaurants – they use the services to get tasty food quickly without leaving the home.

We think both Uber Eats and Doo Dash are likely worried about accusations that the firms are actually hurting restaurants by taking a huge share of the profits. More and more cities are imposing regulations and fee caps.

Uber Eats’ ad featuring Wayne’s World worked well. It got attention and was distinctive and the message came across. DoorDash had a similar message and used the Sesame Street characters. The Kellogg panel gave that spot a C as the creative overwhelmed the message.




State Farm

Every once in a while, an advertising character perfectly captures the spirit of a brand. Jake from State Farm is one of those: a solid, credible, trust-worthy individual, not flashy and not too serious.

State Farm’s Super Bowl ad featuring Jake along with musical artist Drake, worked very well. Branding was good and the spot captured attention with some fun, entertaining moments.




Huggies

One of the more remarkable production feats this year came from Huggies. The brand featured pictures of infants born that day in its ad celebrating babies.

Huggies highlighted the power and challenge of “purpose marketing.” By celebrating babies, Huggies dramatized its purpose. The brand seems big. But there was no reason to believe. The bet is that people will understand that if Huggies supports babies, then the products will be top quality.

This spot did a nice job with linkage and branding.




Hellman's

It isn’t often that you see a mayonnaise ad on the Super Bowl, so it was refreshing to see Hellmann’s stepping up.

The spot featured Amy Schumer as a Fairy Godmayo, able to take leftovers and transform them into delicious dishes with the help of Hellmann’s.

Purpose played a role in this ad, too – apparently Hellmann’s is working to reduce food waste. We wonder if anyone buys Hellmann’s because it is reducing food waste – we suspect that the primary motivation is the tasty mayo.

It may not have had the same breakthrough and distinction as others. However, branding, attention and linkage were all strong in this spot.




Cadillac

This high-budget spot conjured up a new ending for the movie Edward Scissorhands. We can only imagine the negotiations and production challenges behind this spot.

The basic message: a fellow with Scissorhands can use the new Cadillac Lyriq because the car drives itself.

We think the panel’s grade was generous on this one – with the weak branding and linkage we would have scored this one lower.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the product won’t be available for more than a year.

Other Bs: TurboTax, Michelob Ultra, T-Mobile, Vroom, Fiverr, Dr. Squatch, Disney+, E-Trade





Solid Spots: Grade C

Many spots received a C from the panel; they were good spots that struggled in one area or another. Often the trouble was due to linkage and distinction. Here are a few notable ones.

Jeep

The biggest, most iconic ad on the Super Bowl was without question the Bruce Springsteen ad for Jeep. The spot, encouraging us to meet in the middle, was inspirational. The goal was apparently to make it the most spiritual ad in the history of the Super Bowl and it is certainly in the running for that honor. It felt like a sermon.

We give Jeep enormous credit for taking a creative risk. The parent company – Fiat Chrysler, now Stellantis – has a history of betting big on iconic Super Bowl ads. This one felt like its 2012 ad with Clint Eastwood.

We also respect Jeep for speaking directly to the situation facing the country as the only advertiser that really did that this go around.

The panel’s grade of C reflects weak linkage – the spot was inspirational and motivating, just not to buy a Jeep.



General Motors

Will Ferrell’s charming spot for GM was a highlight of the game: entertaining, unique, distinctive.

The casting was perfect in this spot. It was Will Ferrell at his best, paired with other popular figures.

Still, the spot received a C from the panel, likely for the lack of differentiation (How exactly are GM’s electric cars better than Tesla?) and branding. The focus on the GM brand is debatable since we suspect most people don’t know which brands are actually from GM.




Oatly

This spot, featuring Oatly’s singing CEO, received a C from the Kellogg panel but that masked a split. Some people really loved this ad, while other people hated it. Polarization isn’t always a bad thing in branding.

There is no question this was an unusual ad, breaking some new creative ground. It stood out and delivered a message, “Oh wow, oh wow, no cow.”




Logitech

Computer peripheral firm Logitech celebrated creatives in its first Super Bowl spot, featuring Lil Nas X. The ad was distinct and attractive with Logitech products featured prominently in the spot. The key line, “Defy Logic” was thought provoking.

It all worked well – a solid spot but not one that broke through the clutter in a dramatic fashion.




Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s

When you are the clear leader in a category, you don’t have to worry about differentiation, you just have to build the overall business.

That was certainly the goal for Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. The spot was a call to go camping and fishing, to get outside. This spot fits the moment and will inspire people to make plans. The timing is perfect – apparently people start thinking about summer right after the Super Bowl.




Spots that Missed: D


WeatherTech

There were two spots from WeatherTech and both celebrated American-made and US employees. The spots were distinctive, credible and motivating.

So why a D?

The problem in both ads is simple: product linkage and positioning. What exactly does the company make? Why should we purchase it relative to other offerings?

Now it may be that after several years of advertising on the Super Bowl everyone knows that WeatherTech makes floor mats and dog bowls. Seasoned brands are in position to use the Super Bowl to serve as a simple top-of-mind awareness play. Still, we see an opportunity for the brand to get even more out of their Super Bowl spots.


Squarespace

For many years, the Kellogg panel has been awarding low grades to Squarespace, a bit like a student that tries but just can’t figure things out in a class.

This year’s spot still gets a low grade, but we think it is a huge step forward for Squarespace. The frame of reference is better, the benefit is stronger. The use of Dolly Parton and 9 to 5 is brilliant. The big problem: positioning! What is Squarespace and why should we use it instead of competitors? The brand makes a better effort than in previous years, but it still fell short for the panel. Answering that simple question would really help the scores.


Guaranteed Rate

The Kellogg panel wasn’t keen on this spot, but there actually was a lot to like. It has the right creative to focus the audience’s attention, it communicated a benefit and the positioning came across with attributes laddering up to benefits.

The problem was that the spot simply did too much. There was imagery, with people ascending mountains and triumphing over adversity. There were attributes, with a nifty phone app. There were benefits – a big yard, a home office. The problem is that when you try to do too much, the message can get lost—even when people are focused on the ad!




Skechers

Another brand that has a history of low scores from the Kellogg Super Bowl Ad Review panel is Skechers.

This year the trend continues with a spot featuring Tony Romo.

It wasn’t a terrible spot: the branding came through and the benefit – a cushioned shoe – was present. This might be a situation where the goofy tone dragged down the spot as attention suffered. As a result, whether a viewer can make the linkage back to the brand or the benefit is questionable.




DraftKings

We can summarize The DraftKings spots with one word: forgettable.

All in all, we thought it was a great year for Super Bowl advertising. While the future is never certain, we suspect prices might reach a record level in 2022. The Super Bowl remains an unrivaled marketing platform.

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