Super Bowl Ads: The power of sweetness

posted at 9:41 pm on February 4, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

There are four kinds of Super Bowl ads. Shock ads (encompassing both sexy and gross-out shock), Joke ads, Stunt casting ads, and Sweet ads. They sometimes overlap– gross-out Shock + Joke (the Doritos oeuvre) or Joke + Stunt casting, etc. It’s Shock, Joke, and Stunt that get the pre-game coverage, with the networks threatening to ban certain ads and companies happily riding the wave of publicity (the Go Daddy strategy).

But I’d argue it’s the Sweet ads that win the day. One of the few memorable ads of the last several years is the VW Darth Vader ad, in which a mid-class German sedan becomes a way to fulfill your six-year-old’s childhood fantasy. One of the best Super Bowl ads of all time is the Coca-Cola jersey toss. As the Shock, Joke, and Stunt ads up the ante every year, requiring more and more shocks, laughs, or stars to impress, Sweet ads gain a unique ability to cut through the noise.

Last night, you saw that power most notably in the Dodge Farmer ad. I was watching the Super Bowl with a group of 30-something couples, and the place went silent as Paul Harvey’s beautifully resonant, retro voiceover came on. Dodge understood its customers, respected rural America (and those who feel an affinity for it), and connected with them on a deep, emotional level. Chrysler’s Eminem comeback ad in Detroit had the same power, though I confess I’d like both ads better if I weren’t subsidizing the companies with my tax money.

Another Sweet ad was the Clydesdale Budweiser ad. That one had the same feel as the VW Darth Vader, but didn’t pack quite the surprise that would have taken it to that level. I knew exactly where it was going, but where it was going worked for me.

Budweiser has had a good season. For years, I’ve been annoyed with the tone of beer commercials. They assume the worst of both football-watching men and women (or, at their worst, forget women even watch football or drink beer.) They often treat women as one-dimensional harpies bent on making their mates hold their purses while they act as obstacles to light American pilsner. They often portray men as one-dimensional dummies whose only driving instincts are sex and the color-changing mountain range on a can of Coors. Bud was one of the worst offenders, but not this season.

The “Superstition” ads connected with football fans, male and female, on an emotional level. That’s not easy for a beer ad, but every good fan has a superstition, and Budweiser treated those traditions with a little bit of dignity and a little bit of a wink. In the ads, women and men are featured watching and enjoying games together. Women are featured enjoying the game and the beverage, not acting as jealous rivals.

In one of my favorite installments in the series, a portly, bearded 49ers fan shows up at the apartment he used to own to sit in his “lucky seat,” which is now in the home of a young couple. The woman in the commercial, who would formerly have been cast as the downer asking the 49ers fan to leave while holding the beer hostage, understands his plight, saying “And, you’re just coming over now?”

Unfortunately, the Sweet Superstition ads of the regular season gave way to the Stunt casting Superstition ads of the Super Bowl. I love a Stevie Wonder cameo as much as the next person, but the Super Bowl ads lost their simple, emotional connection with beer drinkers and football fans.

The Super Bowl series also didn’t feature any women, except for Zoe Saldana who made an appearance in a more traditional woman’s role, as Wonder’s dazzling assistant or fellow charmer. It’s a shame, since more women watch the Super Bowl than regular season games. These ads were cheeky and fun, but the Sweet Superstition ads made me feel good about being a football fan and enjoying a beer. They made me think of Bud Light as part of a rich tradition of loving sports with friends, and that is the power of being sweet.

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