The Super Bowl. The culmination of the pro football season that, I believe, is the most deeply rooted sport in our American culture. Yes, it’s the final test of the athleticism and the toughness of the gridiron. And this year it was an especially epic battle to see if Tom Brady was going to pass the torch over to the league’s younger guard represented by Patrick Mahomes (well, he clearly was not with a decisive 31 to 9 win; Congrats on #7, GOAT). But above all, The Super Bowl is a party. An escape from everything else going on in our lives. And for decades now, marketers have strived to grab the attention of its consistently massive audience and its heightened expectation to entertain in the name of impacting brand affinity and driving business.
It’s no secret that humor fueled by celebrity, animals or babies—and often combinations of all three pushed to odd extremes (I’m looking at you, Puppy Monkey Baby)—has been the hallmark of Super Bowl advertising designed to keep the party going right through the game’s commercial breaks. Sure, some brands chose to highlight the shared realities of the past year with their multimillion-dollar investments. Super Bowl advertising newcomer Indeed offered encouragement to those caught in the employment crisis caused by the pandemic and the social tensions around diversity, equity and inclusion in the U.S. with “The Rising.” And Jeep created the divisive “The Middle,” a 2-minute ode to unity and a plea for a ReUnited States of America guided by Bruce Springsteen. But looking across the spread of big game spots this year, it’s as if the majority of the year’s advertisers met for a secret summit to agree that escapism and the party that is the Super Bowl must go on.
Advertisers mostly avoided strict depictions of today’s realities—right down to face masks (pretty much nonexistent across the brand-storytelling landscape last night). Brands leaned into the optimism that has come with trending positivity around lower coronavirus hospitalizations and increasing vaccinations, and avoided anything hinting at partisan politics. For the most part, last night’s spots signaled a cease-fire from branded reminders about contagions and the woes that came with them over the past year.
Not every brand went for the funny bone, of course. Toyota’s “Upstream” was an absolutely stunning and heartwarming depiction of Jessica Long’s Paralympic determination story promoting the brand’s Team USA sponsorship. But in my opinion, the ad victors of Super Bowl LV all had one thing in common: They were like the most ironic of all haircuts—The Mullet. What do I mean by that? Like the 80s-inspired cut, the best Super Bowl commercials feature the winning combination of “business in the front, party in the back.”
Like the 80s-inspired cut, the best Super Bowl commercials feature the winning combination of “business in the front, party in the back.”
The Wayne’s World reboot with Cardi B. for Uber Eats demands the distinction not only because of Wayne and Garth’s flowing manes, but also because the spot did a masterful job to keep its Eat Local message—made so important during quarantine lockdowns—front-and-center throughout the commercial. It did so in a nostalgic and fun way, relatable to older Saturday Night Live fans as well as Cardi B.’s younger audience. Tony Bolognavich, the questionable King of Cold Cuts now dogged by Jimmy John’s in “Meet The King” also successfully hammers the sandwich chain’s selling props throughout, including “all-natural meats, sliced by hand” and “affordably priced” in a wildly entertaining way for those partial to mob flicks (note: the extended cut is really worth your 1:47 of time). “Alexa’s Body” featuring People Magazine’s 2020 Sexiest Man Alive Michael B. Jordan as the fantasized vessel for Amazon’s Alexa-enabled smart speakers masterfully promotes the benefits of using voice skills with an engaging storyline intertwining lust and jealousy with impeccable comedic timing.
Perhaps my favorite example of The Mullet Effect came with General Motor’s “No Way Norway” work featuring an electric vehicle-obsessed Will Ferrell with support from celeb pals Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina. Right at the top of the spot, Ferrell uses his signature comedic voice to set up important context around our changed attitudes toward electric cars (yup, that’s “the business in the front”). The spot hinges on Ferrell’s contempt for Norway since last year it became “the first country in the world where the sale of the electric car has overtaken those powered by petrol, diesel and hybrid engines.” according to The Guardian. And in his words, selling “way more electric cars per capita than the U.S.” Well, he’s not standing for it, and in the process he name-drops GM’s trademarked tech, The Ultium Battery. Through his journey to put Norway in its place, the beauty and capability of Cadillac and Hummer EV models are on display, ultimately reinforcing the U.S. auto giant’s commitment to introduce “30 new EVs by 2025.”
GM and its agency partner McCann Worldgroup clearly understand what works best in The Super Bowl environment to promote their “Everybody In” campaign for its electric transformation. They avoid hard-hitting proof points about sustainability and the downsides of our reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, they create this mullet’s “party in the back” flow through Ferrell’s humorous disdain for Norway’s stellar environmental reputation. Surprising comedic twists directed flawlessly by Jake Szymanski include Ferrell’s outbursts, Kenan’s somewhat random pirate outfit, Awkwafina’s archery, a container ship, seasickness, and their general confusion regarding the various Scandinavian countries. Together they create an engaging story arc that truly helped GM stand out.
It takes confidence to pull off a mullet. But when that confidence is backed by honest creativity and an on-point Super Bowl advertising formula, the brands will wear it well and bask in its glory.
It takes confidence to pull off a mullet. But when that confidence is backed by honest creativity and an on-point Super Bowl advertising formula, the brands will wear it well and bask in its glory. These mullets stand out because they are idea-driven executions that focus on distinctive attributes of the brand and use emotion to make people both think and feel. They deliver meaningful messages that can improve their audience’s world—from selling quality food (thank you, Tony), to promoting the benefits of technology (thanks, perfect face and physique of Mr. Jordan), to broader values of sustainability (we applaud you, Mr. Ferrell, for your deranged odyssey). When done well, the audience stays in front of the TV (instead of the toilet) during breaks in the action and gets invested in the storytelling. They welcome these commercials into their lives because they deliver a fun, engaging experience that’s impossible to ignore. Party on.