The Emasculated Man, Super Bowl Ad Themes & 5 Best Strategic Ads

For several years now, I've taken the slightly different approach to doing a recap post of Super Bowl ads and instead of focusing on which ones I thought were the best or most entertaining, I try to break them down from a marketing point of view to share some lessons for anyone in marketing who may not have been able to afford the $2+ million dollar price tag to experiment on the Super Bowl on their own (ie – most of us!). This year, there were lots of examples of what NOT to do, as there usually are. So to start, here are a few major themes across this year's Super Bowl ads, including a roundup of some of the best strategic ads.

  1. IMB_SuperBowl_Dodge The Emasculated Man – For the first time in many years, the running gag of the subservient man who's life is controlled by the woman he is with appeared over and over. Flo TV showed him holding bras in a store and described him as "having his spine surgically removed." Dodge showed a montage of defeated faces with taglines like "I carry your lip balm," to justify the Dodge Charger as their "last stand." Doritos even showed a guy who apparently was so desperate to just watch his game and eat Doritos that he pretended to die so he could lie in a casket filled with Doritos and a TV. While it's funny to see this portrayal of the backbone-less man, the theme that these marketers are counting on is that they can motivate him to buy their product by positioning it as the sorely needed rebellion that can make you a man again.
  2. IMB_SuperBowl_Homeaway The Glorified Past – Thanks to Janet Jackson's malfunctioning boob – glorifying the past is something that just about every Super Bowl halftime show gives permission to do because of their feature on bringing in aging rock bands to perform. This year, this focus was used by Boost Mobile to show a reperformance of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffle, which managed to be both confusing and sad. In contrast, Flo TV had a spot using The Who song "My Generation" and offered a great montage of all of history's biggest TV moments – bringing home the message that our recent history is defined by moments shared on television, so make sure you always have your TV with you. Hyundai also used the tagline of "classical" to describe their new Sonata, Homeaway used a re-enacted scene from the movie classic National Lampoon's Vacation with Chevy Chase, and VW even brought back the "punch buggy" game.
  3. IMB_SuperBowl_Dockers The Direct Offer – One of the most underutilized types of ads at the Super Bowl are the ones that focus more on direct response through some type of special offer. This year, we saw two – the first from Dockers inviting America to go online to the URL www.dockers.com/freepants to presumably get a free pair (though it was actually just a sweepstakes). Then Denny's invited America to have a free breakfast on Tuesday morning. Surprisingly, these were the only two spots this year that focused as heavily on a direct response type of special offer – something that other advertisers like Teleflora, Taco Bell, Monster and several others could have easily added to their spots to make it more likely someone would actually take the next step and contact them.
  4. The Unbranded Ad – This is the last theme I'll point to only because it seems so prevalent in Super Bowl ads. If you are in the world of Pharma and Healthcare, or a handful of other industries, you realize the potential power of an unbranded effort to reach an audience who may have an adverse reaction to a marketing effort that is overtly branded. Unfortunately, the Super Bowl is the one place where many brands focus so much on being entertaining that they forget entirely about how their brand is integrated into the message, which leads to a bunch of ads that may as well be unbranded because no one remembers what brand they were for anyway. This year, many of the Budweiser ads fell in this category, as did many of the more ordinary car ads such as the Acura ZDX ad or the Kia ads.

Taking these themes into account, the best spots of the Super Bowl were the ones that felt entirely unique, used memorable creative and actually drove home a strategic message. Here were some of my choices for the 5 Best Strategic Ads From Super Bowl XLIV:

  1. Dove for Men* – In stark contrast to the theme of the emasculated man, Dove managed to do something entirely unheard of in an ad focused on men … offer what could be considered a "girly" product by appealing to the man who is actually happy with exactly who he is. Using the tagline of being "comfortable in your own skin" – not only did they manage to use the creative to stand out, but the ad was powerful enough to remember for the women watching the game who may actually be the ones to buy the Dove products for him anyway.
  2. Cars.com – Another anti-take on the emasculated man, this ad featured the prodigy Timothy Richman knowing everything … except for how to buy a car. The clear message behind the ad was that Cars.com has everything you need to know about buying a car, no matter how smart you think you are about everything else. Perfect appeal to the ego of a guy who thinks he knows it all, but needs somewhere to go to make sure he prove it when buying a car.
  3. Audi Green Police – Having a car ad that stands apart from all the others is a tall order, but Audi managed to do it by taking a growing cultural trend and poking some fun at it. Everyone knows someone who is part of this "geen police" – the ones who demand that you recycle and be more responsible about how green you are. It is the ideal cultural background from which to position their new Audi A3 TDI as the "get out of jail free card" for being green. Great positioning for a car and ability to use a cultural lens of behaviour that is already happening today (ie – green police) to make it more impactful.
  4. Homeaway – I had heard of this ad before it aired, but the execution was funny and took square aim at all the things people hate about hotels – the lack of space and the extra charges. In contrast, Homeaway offers to rent you an entire hom instead of just a room for your next vacation … an area of travel that noone has established ownership over. The result was that they introduced themselves as the biggest player in a new area of travel accomodation that many Americans may not have considered before. A great use of the Super Bowl to launch a business with low awareness.
  5. Google – Lauded by many marketing pros as one of the best of the Super Bowl, it was not just the simplicity of Google's ad that had me paying attention. Through search after search, the ad managed to tell a story of a couple meeting in Paris, getting married and having a kid, but did it in a way that delivered Google's main message (and answer to its many critics as well as Microsoft's Bing who are promoting the idea of too many search results being back). Google's clear message – we may give you 10 million results, but we're damn good at giving you the one you really want first in that list, so who cares about the others. Pity we had to wait this long to hear Google's response, but when it finally came it was worth it.

*NOTE: Dove is an Ogilvy account and a current client, however I had nothing to do with this ad or with the Dove campaign and do not currently work with Dove in any way.

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