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A New Standard for The Big Game Ads

Jeremy Schwartz Jeremy SchwartzFeb 4, 2020

A New Standard for The Big Game Ads

The Super Bowl has become a nationally celebrated event by several constituencies: first, by NFL fans for the gridiron action; next, by junk food lovers for the indulgent Super Bowl party spreads that have become part of the annual ritual. And now by marketing professionals and pop culture hounds everywhere since Apple made the Super Bowl the biggest game in American advertising by airing its “1984” spot 36 years ago.

Since Steve Jobs heightened the creative bar for the big game with help from Lee Clow and Chiat\Day, our industry has made a new sport of Super Bowl ad rankings and monitoring the water cooler talk regarding the most expensive brand placements in American marketing.
In the decades that have followed, ad pros have been debating the merits of rolling out side-splitting humor versus more heartfelt or serious narratives within this hyperbolic marketing environment. I personally don’t feel that the debate can be that binary.

When I had the opportunity to work on Super Bowl efforts for Anheuser-Busch while at Hill Holliday, Boston in the early 2000s, it was clear that broader cultural forces and how we determined their Budweiser brand could play into that context and had to be considered. For example, the resulting spot for the 2002 Super Bowl from the agency’s big game efforts following 9/11 — just four months after the tragedy — demanded an unprecedented balance of sensitivity and reverence despite the atmosphere of sport and entertainment. The winning idea featured the brand’s regal Clydesdales honoring the lives lost on 9/11 and our nationalistic pride with a spot titled “Respect” that was a truly memorable brand moment for Budweiser.

The following year, A-B’s marketing team confidently accepted humorous approaches once again for its Super Bowl presence and gave us license to use those same Clydesdales — icons and core brand equity of Budweiser — in wildly different narratives appropriate for the context of professional football and the Super Bowl as the country healed from the events in its recent history. During that 2002–2003 NFL season, a lot of controversy and debate swirled around the use of the replay for officiating games and determining game-altering calls (while subsequently eroding the pace of the game). That debate became instrumental to the idea that became Budweiser’s “Replay” spot. The brand embraced humor, which resulted in positive consumer sentiment and top ad rankings.

Same brand. Same characters. Even the same director. But vastly different tone and narratives — both fitting for the brand and both successful Super Bowl commercials.

So instead of simply asserting my selection of best spots from this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads from the sidelines (though here’s a running list of my favorites) or oversimplifying the best practices for creating great Super Bowl advertising, I will share how a couple of this year’s ads from opposite ends of the tonal spectrum deliver on the five most important qualities by which we shape and judge ideas at my own creative company, Truth Collective, to produce quality outcomes for brands.

For this illustration of our “Truth Standard,” let’s take a closer look at two very different commercial approaches from two Big Tech brands — Amazon’s “Before Alexa” and Google’s “Loretta” spots­ — to promote their competing voice-assisted platforms.

Amazon’s “Before Alexa” spot created by Droga5

Google’s “Loretta” spot developed in-house

When discussing the most important fuels to stoke the fire for brand, we believe the conversation — and the idea development process — starts with emotion. Simply put, as marketers, we need to make people feel something if we’d like them to do something. Whether that’s building brand loyalty, encouraging a click to get more information, or visiting a retailer to purchase items big or small, our messages have to first elicit an emotional response. Rational points can be laced within the message, but it’s been proven through neuroscience that pragmatism will only help post-rationalize and confirm the feelings that first light up our audiences.

And boy, do we have a playground of emotions to consider. Psychologists and neuroscientists have been studying the range of emotions and how they affect human behavior for decades, but I especially admire the work of psychologist Robert Plutchik. His studies led him to define eight basic emotions, as mapped in his wheel of emotion, that directly relate to one another. Plutchik determined the emotions that oppose one another as well as the ones that can transition seamlessly into one another to create the nuanced variations that drive us all in different ways.

Regarding the two commercials I’ve chosen to analyze here, the emotional levers being pulled by each brand are quite different.

In Amazon’s “Before Alexa” spot, the primary emotion used throughout the narrative is surprise — which many ad pros believe is the most effective emotional territory to drive positive consumer sentiment. Sure, employing Ellen DeGeneres and her partner Portia de Rossi’s cultural popularity scores some trust cues as well as admiration for the brand by embracing a same-sex couple, and thus implied liberal values. The story’s main driver leans into the part of the wheel that creates awe through surprise, starting with the product demonstration of the Alexa device itself. The ease of voice skills to enhance comfort in our lives or handle functional tasks is a surprise in itself. The spot only generates more amazement as the comically exaggerated demonstrations of the same human needs the device assists with today are presented through the absence of Alexa’s AI-driven technology across varied historical backdrops.

The Google “Loretta” spot builds on an already established narrative structure used by the internet search leader in prior campaign efforts (see Here to Help, Parisian Love), and thus is the first cue that surprise was not part of their strategy. Instead this concept leans heavily toward the spokes of the emotional wheel that elicit love. A real-life relationship spanning 60+ years is documented in front of viewers in 90 seconds completely through the Google Assistant. The whole spot is a product demonstration that masterfully places Google’s ecosystem at the heart of the narrative. An elderly voice, who we assume belongs now to the widower, honors the fortune of his lifetime spent with his wife Loretta. It delivers strong cues of trust, joy, serenity, and ultimately acceptance in a way that turns Google’s geeky suite of search, cloud services, and voice skills into instruments of love and optimism (and likely a pretty good cry for the romantics among us).

Being distinctive in any competitive marketing environment is important. But in the saturated, PR-fueled landscape that is Super Bowl advertising, it can make or break how brands’ spots land in the rankings and in the hearts and minds of American consumers. In our own brand practice, we focus on the ownability not only of the concept but also of the tone and execution used to bring the idea to life in a way that can be unique to that brand.

Both the commercials from Amazon and Google are distinctive for their respective brands in disparate ways.

Amazon’s humorous approach brought to the screen by its agency partner, Droga5, features the unique ways that today’s Alexa technology can be your personal assistant for everything from functional tasks (smart home thermostat control, personal reminders, messaging, news delivery), to providing entertainment to improve lives (music streaming, jokes or fact-finding via internet search), primarily by dramatizing the absence of the personalized technology in past eras. Each “Before Alexa” example includes someone with a name similar to Amazon’s innovative AI platform trying to deliver those functions with varying degrees of success. It’s those subtle variations of the name — Allessa, Alexine, Alex, Al, Alexi, Alexamis, and Alicia — that further cement the branded Alexa platform into the viewer’s memory without having to focus on true product demonstration throughout the 90-second story. Simply said, distinction is achieved because no one else could make that commercial in quite the same way.

Google’s in-house brand team achieves its ownable territory with the “Loretta” commercial without the sweeping exaggeration present in so many Super Bowl ads today (“Before Alexa” included). In fact, it unearthed this real-life story from an employee’s own 85-year-old grandfather (and yes, it is his actual voice). We are taken through the arc of his life spent with Loretta through his documented memories and the Google Assistant user interface, thus reinforcing the inherent ease of product and the purpose of the brand by providing “a little help with the little things” — which are certainly not little things in this context. The minimalism of the Google user experience and the authenticity of the content and reminders about Loretta’s life add up to a powerful human story and distinctly ownable moment for Google.

As communications professionals, we all should profess focus and clarity of message whenever possible to our clients. The best stories serve the main narrative with style, but also with an economy of information to keep audiences engaged. Add increasingly shorter attention spans and the noisy environments of the Super Bowl and game-viewing experiences, and brands’ best use of storytelling focus must be employed to their advantage and not bury the promise of the ad’s message.

Both the Amazon and Google spots effectively brought the promise of their voice-enabled assistants to life by answering why these products should earn your attention. The teams for each tech giant building these Super Bowl-sized stories got to similar insights about their tech offerings’ ability to enhance users’ lives (for more on insight, see my strategy partner’s story The Age of Insight). Each team kept human truths of comfort and connection at the forefront and did not get off-track with details, such as tech specs, that do not serve the human-centric storytelling. Thus, both ads create successful brand narratives despite their divergent styles.

When we run ideas and execution through the versatility filter at Truth Collective, we are typically discussing how ideas can serve the brand in today’s multichannel media environment. Perhaps earlier in my career, I’d be focused solely on the “campaign-ability” of a particular idea to determine if it was just a one-off execution, or whether I could use the idea platform as a springboard for a fully integrated marketing effort.
Super Bowl ad efforts have changed dramatically as the expense and criticism around this branded landscape have increased exponentially. In past decades, brands routinely made one-off commercials that aired during the game to the surprise and delight, or disappointment, of the game-viewing audience. As a result, versatility was not top-of-mind except for ensuring that the ads were on-brand. Advertisers in today’s Super Bowl have to maximize the impact of the $5M price tag for each 30-second increment of airtime. Coordinated efforts across not just their paid media investment but also their owned and earned brand channels are now the norm.
Many advertisers in this year’s big game used teaser strategies paired with an early release of their official game commercials to build anticipation (thus, PR value and social media engagement) for their Super Bowl investments. Amazon took that tact by releasing a 15-second teaser featuring DeGeneres and de Rossi stubbornly fighting over their desired thermostat setting with their Alexa caught in the middle. I could easily envision that the Before Alexa moments from the spot, or perhaps new scenarios from more comical historical backdrops, could be created for shorter formats prevalent in our multichannel, mobile-first world. To my knowledge, Google only used press releases about the real-life inspiration for Loretta and an early release of the full spot to build its pregame brand impact. But in Google’s case, having a link to their spot on the most popular internet search engine on game day is a significant brand tactic that’s authentic to that brand experience and a versatile part of their ad strategy.

The final standard we consider for all brand engagements involves plans for measurement against set key performance indicators, or KPIs, of the marketing engagement. We believe today’s marketers must establish marketing goals spanning brand metrics, business results, and the impact to consumer behaviors.

Given that I chose to analyze spots from two pillars of Big Tech today, it’s safe to assume that both brands will employ their Big Data capabilities to measure every nuanced interaction that consumers will have with these marketing programs. I look forward to following the reported results within the voice assistant category following Super Bowl LIV. Depending on whether people respond to spots with the comic style of “Before Alexa” or the sentimentality of “Loretta,” it’s safe to assume that we’ll all be hearing more uses of “Hey, Alexa” and “Hey, Google” in our very near future.

Stills from Super Bowl LIV commercials “Before Alexa” from Amazon and “Loretta” from Google.

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