Where’s Betty White When You Need Her? More On Super Bowl LII Ads

by Arden Bronstein, Right Brain Studio Intern

Coming up with a favorite ad from this year’s Super Bowl has been a struggle. Did anything really stand out?

Think back on some of the greatest Super Bowl spots of the last few years. Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” in 2014 told the sweet, tear-jerking story of the unlikely friendship between a brave yellow lab puppy and a Clydesdale. Snickers’ “Hungry Betty White” from 2010 presented a side-splitting cameo of Betty White and her “divalicious” demands during a backyard football game. And who could forget Mountain Dew’s “Puppymonkeybaby,” admittedly one of my favorite Super Bowl ads of all time because of its acknowledgement of the rampant clichés presented in these ads and the fact that I just found it plain hilarious.

Despite what I highlighted above, though, it’s not only the side-splitting, outrageous or puppy-filled ads that have burrowed into my memories. There’s certainly a time and place for frivolity, but maybe 2018 isn’t that time. Just last year, only a few days after President Trump’s inauguration,  84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad teased a nearly 6-minute short film chronicling a mother and daughter’s journey to cross into the United States from Mexico, where they were ultimately stopped by a mammoth wall. So many viewers wanted to click through to the film from the 90-second ad that the Journey84.com website crashed. That was a year ago, and I still remember it vividly despite the flu haze that clouded me on the day of the big game.

This year, however, somehow miraculously flu-free, I didn’t really remember a single ad the morning after the big game. While this can be partially attributed to being in a small room filled with die-hard Eagles fans thirsty for their first ever Super Bowl win, it is also partly because I did not see anything I had not seen before. The celebrities were still making cameos (though not all celebrity-driven ads are created equal), the puppies and babies were still cute, the AI was still quick-witted and creepy all at once. I was amused, sure, but I’m not taking away any lasting “you’re not you when you’re hungry”-type taglines, nor did I see many opportunities to further these campaigns on a smaller budget (AKA without a Morgan Freeman cameo).

The most likely explanation for this lack of memorability was that none of the ads made me feel. Whether I’m belly laughing so hard I’m in tears or weeping as a lost puppy makes his way home with the help of some trusted horse companions, the commercials that inspire some kind of deep emotion are the ones we still talk about for years to come.

I was not yet born when Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl ad aired, but I cannot count the number of times since YouTube was created that I’ve been shown this ad in a communications, advertising or marketing class (as a now-graduate student, I’ve taken many of these.) 34 years later, that commercial is still iconic, a beacon of what a Super Bowl ad could and should be. Perhaps that has something to do with its ever-lasting relevance – The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik pointed out that bookstores moved the title in early 2017 from “‘dystopian science fiction’ shelves to the ‘current affairs’ section.” Or maybe the first Blockbuster-style Super Bowl ad allowed for enough cinematic quality coupled with “concise story-telling” to leave a lasting impression as something that felt fresh, original and thought-provoking. I think, however, that this ad has endured because of the simultaneous fear and excitement it inspired. In just 60 seconds, emotions run the gamut from confused to apprehensive to enthralled to relieved. That cannot be easily mimicked.

I didn’t see anything this year that moved me that way 84 Lumber did in 2017 or the way Apple did for so many in 1984. The only ads that even attempted to be poignant fell flat and seemed more tone-deaf than anything else (here’s looking at you, Dodge). If 30 seconds of air time during the big game will set a company back $5 million, then Budweiser spent $10 million to advertise their humanitarian efforts in donating canned water to disaster relief efforts in communities effected by hurricanes and fires. While the imagery and music were meant to invoke empathy, the message seemed thin. Perhaps Anheuser-Busch could have donated that hefty marketing budget and used cheaper, viral tactics to let everyone know why a Budweiser commercial was absent from the 2018 Super Bowl. Think of the emotions that kind of campaign could evoke. Think of how good the brand would have looked and how that could have inspired sales after Budweiser recently fell from America’s top three favorite beers. I’m still a marketer, after all.

Next year, I would like to see a Super Bowl without the Patriots and with some genuine emotion (off the field.)

Arden Bronstein is an Intern at the Right Brain Studio. She will receive her Masters Degree in Communication Management from the Annenberg School at USC in May, 2019


  • Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango LLC
    Posted at 15:44h, 06 February Reply

    Spot on, Arden, and well stated. The key to memorability is emotion, and most of the ads this year seemed tempered, as if corporations were afraid to offend in this tumultuous year. Yet during a raging Super Bowl party (filled with your screaming Eagles fans), temperance is perhaps not the smartest approach.

    That said, I did like the Tide commercials. While not moving, they made me laugh (an emotional response), and they were based on a core product benefit: clean clothes. (As opposed to borrowed interest, like putting superheroes in a Lexus spot.) I also thought they were smart to cross-promote with other marketing icons, like Mr. Clean and the Old Spice guy.

    But I agree: nothing this year will be taught at Annenberg in 30 years! Ironic that, in a Super Bowl where the winning team proved the value of taking risks, most of the advertisers played it safe. And lost.

  • Mark Armstrong
    Posted at 07:24h, 07 February Reply

    Great post. You talked about past ads that really resonated with you: how they were funny, entertaining, heartwarming, poignant, and/or inspiring. That’s exactly the kind of content that engages people emotionally, and prompts them to share the content. Also liked your “nor did I see many opportunities to further these campaigns on a smaller budget (AKA without a Morgan Freeman cameo).” Great insight– what’s the point of spending millions on ads that can’t be carried forward without difficulty and expense? Thanks for sharing.

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