Laughlin Constable’s John Maxham on Super Bowl ads

(Laughlin Constable’s CCO offers his take on the Big Game spots)

Heading into the Super Bowl, the question on my mind was “How much of 2020 is going to wind up in the 2021 Super Bowl ads?”

Mercifully, it wasn’t all that much. Not that there weren’t important issues to talk about, but we leaned so heavily into messaging around the pandemic and social issues this past year, was there really anything left to say? 

Three hours of escapism in a year dominated by stress, upheaval and loss seemed like the right way to go. That said, it was just an average year for the quality of the commercials. But that’s coming off of 2020, one of the strongest years in Super Bowl advertising memory. Wow. Something redeeming to say about 2020. Who would have thought?

There are a few commercials that caught my attention. Some for the right reasons, and some because they were all kinds of wrong.

Reddit “5 Seconds”

We didn’t see a lot of unconventional approaches to the ads this year, but Reddit’s “Five Seconds” deserves praise. Reddit bought the shortest amount of airtime in Super Bowl history– 5 seconds. It had a very “pirate radio” feel, like they were hacking the broadcast itself. Even though it was hard to get the entire message in that short span, it got a lot of follow up online. Extremely timely given the attention around r/wallstreetbets.

General Motors “No Way, Norway”

Another favorite of mine was General Motor’s “No Way Norway.” It was refreshing to see an effort to advance a serious cause – protecting the environment – in a way that was genuinely funny, absurd and not preachy. The carbon footprint of making the commercial itself? Not so sure.

Oatly Oat Milk “Wow Wow No Cow”

Of course, in the middle of the best and the worst there is the Oatly Oat Milk. This oddball spot is being simultaneously regarded as one of the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of all time. The ensuing discussion and heated online debate make it a resounding success in my book. It was written by the CEO himself and seems totally on-brand for what a quirky oat milk company would do.

Doritos “#Flat Matthew”

As for the commercials that were more of a miss in my book, Doritos “#Flat Matthew” is at the top. I didn’t think anything could make me miss Matthew McConaughey’s ponderous, nonsensical Lincoln commercials. This spot managed to do it.

Jeep “The Middle”

Another commercial that left me scratching my head was Jeep’s “The Middle.” Two American icons, Jeep and Bruce Springsteen team up for a message about common ground. No brainer, right? But Springsteen as the emissary of middle America? Donning a cowboy hat? When did we forget this guy is from New Jersey?

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A common theme in this year’s Super Bowl ads was celebrities. But just because you have a famous person, doesn’t mean you’ll have a famous ad. T-Mobile’s “Bad Connection” left me confused on the benefit/consequences concept on why I need a good network. Additionally, for Uber Eat’s “Wayne’s World” ad, as much as I wanted to like this ad, it just seemed old and tired.

This in turn caused me to feel old and tired. It also shows how a brand can throw everything and the kitchen sink into a Super Bowl spot (nostalgia, celebrity, visual effects, memes) and still come up short.

Of course, as we know, perhaps the ultimate failure is every single spot we can’t remember.

And there are a lot of them. Given the amount of money brands invest in this platform, it’s truly unforgivable.

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All in all, it felt like the cultural output of a country seeking to find its legs again after an unbelievable ordeal. And while nothing truly mind-blowing came out of this year’s ads, there was something satisfying about just taking those first few wobbly steps, hopefully on the path to recovery.

John Maxham is Chief Creative Officer of award-winning agency Laughlin Constable.