John Harrington
Feb 9, 2021

Super Bowl 2021: brands play it safe but creativity still shines through

While it may not resonate as strongly this side of the Pacific, the Super Bowl nevertheless provides a valuable insight into creative campaign trends more generally.

Super Bowl 2021: brands play it safe but creativity still shines through

What's notable this year, of all years, is how many brands have chosen to play it safe.

Political statements and 'purpose' positioning have largely been eschewed for different variations on the tried and tested celebrity self-mocking.

Among the better ones was the T-Mobile spot featuring recounting how real life couple Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton got together. The campaign is a hit in my view because, firstly, it has a genuinely original story idea and one that relates directly to the product, while the protagonists display their decent comedy chops.

Another film that scores in the originality and humour department is the 2D Matthew McConaughey spot for Doritos. Some have called it 'creepy', and I sympathise, but the execution is good and the concept inventive and memorable.

Another effective one, for my money, is the Alexa campaign starring Michael B Jordan, sending up his status as one of the most attractive man in Hollywood. Whilst not hugely original, the film is amusing and engaging enough to get attention.

Less successful is the M&Ms film featuring Schitt’s Creek actor Dan Levy holding one of the anthropomorphic chocolate pieces hostage in his car; the chocolatey duo's schtick feels tired and uninspiring in 2021. And the Cheetos video featuring Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis and Shaggy - performing a re-worked version of his 21 year-old hit It Wasn't Me - also comes across dated and a bit cheap.

Elsewhere, non-dairy milk brand Oatly—whose 'Help Dad' campaign recently ran into criticism—released a frankly annoying spot featuring the CEO singing in a field. I assume the brand was hoping to get publicity from the inevitable complaints, but I can't help feel this was an opportunity lost to promote Oatly's ethical stance.

The purpose approach wasn't ignore entirely, however. Toyota used its US Paralympics sponsorship in a moving film featuring decorated Paralympian Jessica Long and her family. There was no mention of the Toyota brand, bar a logo at the end.

The same could be said of the well-publicised spot for another classic automotive brand, Jeep. It sees Bruce Springsteen urge Americans to meet "in the middle" amid continuing divisions in the country.

The Jeep campaign was also a winner in terms of earned media appeal, given the timely message and the fact, picked up by several commentators, that The Boss has until now refused to endorse products or let his songs be used in commercials.

While the Toyota and Jeep films are effective for brand positioning, what they are not is controversial. Big brands avoided making truly polarising or social comments. Given the diversity of the audience and the costs of Super Bowl ad slots, reported by Variety to be $5.5 million for 30 seconds, it's understandable that playing it safe was the mantra. It's a shame that more were not bolder with more explicit political or social commentary.

Reddit came closest to stirring controversy with a spot that is, for my money, the most effective from an earned media perspective.

The social platform received huge publicity for, it claimed, spending its whole marketing budget on a slot lasting just five seconds. In a novel approach, viewers were encouraged to pause the video and read the uplifting message, which makes reference to last week's stock market furore after retail investors were encouraged on Reddit to buy GameStop shares.

The text read: "One thing we learned from our communities last week is that underdogs can accomplish just about anything when they come together arounds a common idea."

Timely, original, and not shying away from a big topic of conversation, Reddit's offering may have lacked Hollywood star power or budgets—but as a piece of earned media creative, it was something of a touchdown.


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