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Over the last several years, celebrities have taken over Super Bowl commercials, replacing brand mascots and unexpected gags. The move away from humor, says Tommy Henvey, Chief Creative at the Something Different advertising agency in New York, is money-motivated. This year, a 30-second Super Bowl spot will run brands $7 million. It makes sense to mitigate the creative risk associated with that price point by dropping in a recognizable face – think Sylvester Stallone for Paramount+, or Bryan Cranston for PopCorners.
There is, however, an issue. Celebrity isn’t always at odds with comedy, but it often is. In classic drama, the “hoped-for outcome” happens; in comedy, the “feared outcome” happens along with what Darren Campo, who ran a Super Bowl commercial to launch truTV in 2010, describes as a “twist that makes it funny.” That’s where alignment can be an issue. Celebrities won’t do just anything. The outcome and the twist need to align with their image and the brands2.
Add in the fact that many ads will get almost as many eyeballs on social media as they will during the game and the narrative calculus gets dizzying. It’s easier to just do something unexpected and visually appealing.
“Now it’s like, let’s do some wacky shit and put a couple of celebrities in it. To me, a little bit of the art of it’s gone,” says Henvey. “People think less about the message than what’s in it: i.e. ‘let’s get this person in it.’ Which is kind of a bummer.”
In the absence of art comes science. Commercials are tested with online panels that track engagement and effectiveness. Companies look for high entertainment scores and high intent-to-purchase scores. Boise State University researchers using “emotion recognition technology” recently found that the highest-scoring ads tended to portray happiness and sadness together, whereas lower-scoring ads juxtaposed happiness and fear. An emotional touch helps, but high stakes don’t always work.
“I remember seeing a commercial when I was working somewhere that they planned to play for the Super Bowl… It was depressing as shit… people are not looking for that in this situation,” says Henvey1, who absolutely does remember the spot but doesn’t rat out his fellow travelers. “One of my favorites of all time is this grandfather talking to his granddaughter, and she asks if he remembers his first Pepsi. He remembers every Pepsi he’s ever had, during the moon landing, etcetera, and at the end of it, he calls his granddaughter the wrong name. That stuff is really good.”3
And even though commercials are increasingly skewing Famous Person Holds a Product, that doesn’t mean that the traditional formula (funny + feelings) doesn’t work. The top-scoring commercial in USA Today’s Ad Meter last year didn’t feature any celebrities – just a girl growing up alongside her puppy in a dog food commercial4.
The old tricks still work. But they are risky. Who wants to put down $7 million on a prop bet?
1 Nobody’s really pushing the don’t drink and drive commercials (or the don’t smoke … and do anything ones) on Super Bowl Sunday.
2 Last year, Davante Adams, wide receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders, starred in the NFL’s Super Bowl commercial, in which he runs around wearing a chicken costume. “What makes this actually good is that nobody held back out of shame, Davante in his chickensuit” was “beautiful,” says one YouTube comment on the video. Getting silly gets you far; the commercial ranked #2 on USA Today’s Ad Meter.
3 RIP Marcel Proust, you would have loved canned soda.
4 Marley and Me, abridged.