In the beginning, there was “1984.” With that one perfect throw of a sledgehammer, the fabled Super Bowl commercial that introduced Apple’s Macintosh computer to the world more than three decades ago famously ushered into existence the era of blockbuster advertisements, elevating Super Bowl commercials to a level of pop-culture significance that rivals the game itself. In essence, it was the “Jaws” of Super Bowl commercials, a happy accident creating a media framework that would be replicated for generations.
“It’s this creative arms race now in corporate America,” says Mike Sheldon, CEO of the ad agency Deutsch North America. Sheldon ran the creative team behind Volkswagen’s “The Force” spot in 2011: Along with “1984,” it is widely regarded as one of the best Super Bowl ads of all time.
The big numbers everybody tends to tout around the Super Bowl is how much networks charge brands for those precious 30, 45 or 60 seconds of airtime. But that’s only part of what it costs to run a true-blue Super Bowl ad: In addition to the $5 million spot price this year, brands that want to be in the Big Game also typically have to purchase an equal dollar amount of advertising space elsewhere in the network’s portfolio. And then there’s the cost of making the ad itself, which can run an extra $5 or even $6 million.
With a price tag of as much as $15 million, then, you could say there’s a fair amount of pressure on the people making Super Bowl ads to deliver total perfection. “I’d hate to be the marketer who spends five million bucks just for the time, and then another five or six million to make it, on one of these spots that come in dead last on the ad meter,” says Brent Smart, CEO of the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi New York. “That’s a career-ruiner.”
Smart hasn’t had to deal with that kind of failure, himself: His team created Cheerios’ first Super Bowl ad in 2014, the one with the adorable small girl and interracial family, which made it into the top five spots that year.
That doesn’t mean nobody blows it. “Groupon did a horribly distasteful spot with Timothy Hutton in 2011,” Deutsch’s Sheldon says. “It totally blew up in their face, and the agency got fired for it. It was a disaster.”
“A lot of Super Bowl ads try too hard, put too many things in it, and end up being a nonsensical mash-up of 20 different things,” says Carlo Cavallone, creative director of 72andSunny Amsterdam, the agency behind Axe’s Super Bowl ad this year.
So how do you avoid a bomb and create the kind of ad people talk about for years to come? We’re talking Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” commercial, VW’s “The Force” outing, Apple’s “1984” spot. We spoke with the people behind some of the best recent ads to find what works.
Keep It Simple, Stupid: “You have to think of the environment,” Smart says. “It’s normally watched in a crowd. It’s very noisy, there’s a lot going on. You gotta stop the crowd. Simple stories work much better. There’s a difference, though, between simple and simplistic.”
And be careful about getting too out-there: “I don’t think it’s about going superweird or over-the-top,” Cavallone says.
Laughs: “You’re never gonna get hurt with humor,” Sheldon says. “The ads that consistently score highest are the ones that give you a pretty big belly laugh.”
Emotion: “People are looking to be entertained,” Smart says. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean being funny. You can entertain by being moved emotionally as well.” Just maybe don’t deliver quite as much emotion as Nationwide’s “Dead Kid” commercial did in 2015. (Nationwide appears to be sitting it out this year.)
A Talking Donkey: OK, we’re just kidding about this one. (Although Cavallone does joke, “I’d recommend to use a talking donkey whenever possible.”) While a chatty burro may be too off-brand for most marketers, Ed Brojerdi, CEO of the ad agency KBS (which was behind BMW’s 2015 Super Bowl spot), says fauna in general can provide a nice boost to an existing emotional nugget: “You still need a great idea and great execution — the dogs just make it that much better.” Or donkey, if you so choose.