Little Rock ad man Chip Culpepper thinks this year’s Super Bowl commercials were a lot like the game itself: “Only about a quarter worth watching.”
The Monday-morning quarterbacking in Culpepper’s world wasn’t about New England’s epic fourth-quarter surge and overtime victory over Atlanta.
“Judging the ads has become as big a tradition as the game itself, and just as much a sport,” said Culpepper, of Mangan Holcomb Partners. “Good grief! All that time and money — hiring Morgan Freeman to be in your commercial. You can’t afford to swing and miss, and some of the advertisers swung and missed.”
Let’s run down the stats. An estimated 111 million people watched the game, making it the fifth-most-watched television program in history. The average 30-second ad placement was $5 million, and untold millions went into producing commercials that ranged from Honda’s talking celebrity yearbook photos to heartfelt depictions of immigration to a puzzling gold-plated Colonel Sanders.
“The cost of ad placement has doubled in 10 years,” said Brett Parker, director of media services at Stone Ward in Little Rock. “In 2007, a 30-second ad was $2.5 million. Now, at $5 million, the 89 national breaks were worth $445 million to Fox.”
Yet for all the expense and care, “there wasn’t a whole lot that made me laugh or feel special, or even warm and fuzzy,” Culpepper said. He called Snickers’ live ad at halftime “a C at best.” Unless you saw the hype in advance or caught a reference to the score, “you wouldn’t know it was live.”
Dan Cowling, president of The Communications Group, was puzzled by the KFC “Gold” spot, where the colonel looked like a “Goldfinger” character. “I still don’t understand. Their attempt at re-imaging with a younger audience continues to be bizarre.”
Super Bowl ads are always a calculated risk, with 50 percent of adults gravitating toward your brand if your ad is considered good, but 70 percent becoming less likely to buy your products if the ad is perceived as bad, Parker said. Chip Paris, who has his own communications shop in Fort Smith, said one obvious goal is keeping people talking. “Regardless of how you stand on politics, companies like 84 Lumber and Anheuser-Busch took gambles on sending a strong message on immigration and have kept the dialogue going long after the game.”
The Busch ad chronicled co-founder Adolphus Busch’s immigration, and the most talked-about spot was 84 Lumber’s vision of a Hispanic mother and daughter trekking to America.
“The ending on the original ad wasn’t allowed by Fox,” Parker said. “So 84 Lumber encouraged people to go to their site to see the controversial ending. When viewers went to see the ending [the immigrants encounter a wall, but also eventually a doorway], there was so much traffic that their web server crashed.”
“Not that many ads tried to be funny; it was more businesslike,” Parker said. Culpepper chuckled at a throwback ad featuring the ghost of Spuds MacKenzie, Bud Light’s bull terrier spokesdog of old. “I got a laugh out of it, but it was truly weird in a lot of ways — an ad literally about a dead dog.”
Cowling had three favorites. First, Coca-Cola’s “It’s Beautiful,” which he described as a recycled but timely “appeal to diversity wrapped in national pride.” He praised the Buick ad where a dad says, “If that’s a Buick, my son is Cam Newton,” only to see his peewee quarterback son transformed into the 6-foot-5 NFL star. “Kids, humor and a football icon combine for great results.”
But his favorite was Kia’s “Hero’s Journey,” with Melissa McCarthy being whiplashed by a whale, toppled in a tree and crunched into a crevasse. The message was that driving an environmentally friendly car is a less painful way to save the world. “Social commentary can be dangerous in an ad,” Cowling said. “This one scores all around. Hot topics wrapped in humor with great execution.”
Elise Mitchell of Mitchell Communications in Fayetteville loved seeing “a boutique car company like Alfa Romeo with three ads and sponsorship of the halftime show.” She appreciated the driving footage and views of Alfa Romeos through the years. “The car [the new Giulia] is stunning and they did an excellent job positioning it as well as their brand. It was the only ad I retweeted.”
Culpepper praised Ford’s 60-second commercial about being stuck and getting free, but noted that “they left the guy stranded on the lake and on the ski lift. They left the Kleenex box on the cat’s head, so some things were unresolved. But it was a beautiful spot.”