It’s easy to see how agencies can get swept up in the magic of Super Bowl ads: the millions of viewers, the elite timeslot, and the iconic ads that create buzz and live on in YouTube history.
Having a hit Super Bowl ad for an agency is like bringing home the Vince Lombardi trophy itself. But makes a truly great Super Bowl ad, really?
Although most clients don't have the budgets to foot the $6.5 million USD for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, think of these as the ultimate testing ground for what works–and does not work–for a large-scale audience.
To create a spectacularly bad Super Bowl commercial is a sin: to create a boring flop, even worse. On a day that will see millions of social media posts, with viewers engaging with brands all around the world, the one thing you absolutely don’t want to be is forgettable.
The same applies, albeit at a smaller scale, to all clients and all types of creative. So what lessons can an agency take away from the juggernaut of Super Bowl advertising?
Let’s take a look at the key themes from the best Super Bowl Ads–and the agencies behind them–to capture the common elements that powered some of yesterday's most impactful ads.
1. Capitalize on the Power of Nostalgia
There’s a wonderfully unifying feeling when the whole nation watches a screen that takes them on a blast from the past. And tapping into an entire generation–or more–all at once is like striking marketing gold.
Whether you were a Gen X, millennial, or Gen Z, the ad “Famous Cars” (2019) truly tapped into the nostalgia bone. There was something for everyone, from the relatively new Transformers all the way to the Flintstones mobile, and it positioned Walmart as an essential stop during your adventures.
This Walmart ad was made by the New York-based branch of French advertising behemoth Publicis. With over 88,000 employees worldwide, Publicis boasts accounts like McDonald’s, Heineken, Nescafe, Renault, L’Oreal, Samsung, and Mercedez Benz.
Nostalgia is powerful, but the devil’s in the details. This year, agency Furlined clearly nailed every detail of their ad “Clueless”. Alicia Silverstone delivers her iconic lines perfectly from the podium at the front of the class, just like in the infamous debate scene from the 1995 movie to promote Rakuten’s cash-back-for-designer-brands business. Who better to do this than the woman with the most famous wardrobe of the ‘90s? This joyful romp down memory lane while remaining totally recognizable–which is key for nostalgia to work.
Santa Monica-based agency Furlined often takes on a cinematic approach by collaborating with writers, directors, and producers to create brand stories that move audiences as if they were watching a movie.
There’s a reason Breaking Bad continues to make a reappearance in Super Bowl ads as seen in 2015’s “Sorta Pharmacy” ad for esurance and this year for PopCorners. Even though the show stopped airing in 2013, the audience of 10 million viewers it amassed is still alive and well. Nostalgia works.
PopCorners’ winning ad came from Frito-Lay’s in-house agency D3, earning PopCorners its first Super Bowl spot.
Even if you can't attract superstars of the past to be your client's spokesperson, there are easy and effective ways to infuse nostalgia into today's marketing materials, connecting the present-day digital landscape with memories of days gone by.
2. Tug on Their Heartstrings
At this point, you’ve probably seen more than one “Clydesdale-befriends-puppy” Budweiser commercial. (They’ve been featuring puppies alongside their famous horses on and off since the ‘90s.) And while they may all blur together, they’re memorable for the same reason: the surprising tug on your heartstrings–and the boldness of having literally nothing to do with beer. (Fess up; these commercials make you misty-eyed too.)
Remember that cute montage of a puppy stubbornly returning to the neighboring farm because it has befriended one of the horses? The commercial has no dialogue, but Let Her Go by Passenger plays alongside the visuals in Budweiser’s 2014 Super Bowl ad “Best Buds”. (Let Her Go was a particularly timely choice for this commercial; though the song was released in 2012, it grew in popularity in North America in 2013 and 2014.)
Awakening emotions is key to being memorable. And nothing tugs on heartstrings like cute baby animals.
The ad agency Anomaly (that won the 2022 US Agency of the Year Award) was behind this ad, and they continued to create more ads in this series like “Puppy Love” which equally broke the internet.
3. Orchestrate Oddly Relatable Situations
Being relatable is often one thing celebrities are not. Due to their god-like statuses and fame, their lifestyles seem beyond reach. So when you place a celebrity in a mundane setting, you’ve created an obvious juxtaposition and grabbed the audience's attention.
In “Bradley Cooper and His Mom”, T-Mobile (2023), the audience got a “behind the scenes” look at Bradley Cooper and his mother attempting to film a commercial for T-Mobile. Mom calls it “G-mobile” at one point and gets in quite a few funny digs at her son, who has been nominated for no less than nine Academy Awards. This one worked particularly well because of the hilarious banter between Cooper and his mother, who genuinely seemed to be having a blast on set together.
LA-based Panay Films is the production company behind the 60-second ad for T-Mobile is not new to comedy, or Hollywood celebs, having directed Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015) and Hit and Run (2012).
Placing celebrities in unexpected situations is a tried-and-true gag that often surprises and delights viewers (Dunkin Donuts pulled a similar stunt this year by putting Ben Affleck to work at the drive-thru counter).
This ad was Dunkin’s first Big Game appearance–and it was a clear hit. It appears that the agency Anomaly is behind this ad as well, having won the Dunkin’ account back in 2021. Their task was to modernize the brand’s look to better suit Gen Z consumers, which is likely why they dropped the Donuts from the Dunkin.
Marketing agencies can easily adopt this "slice of life" approach to bring the people behind their client's brands to life. They might not be quite as oddly charming as Bradley Cooper and his mom were, but these ads resonate well on a local and personal level as well.
4. Sell the Benefit, Not the Product
It’s not easy to launch a new technology on the market when there’s no preexisting market demand. When computers first came out, not many people could imagine ever needing one. And we all know what happened next. This is why the Super Bowl ad to end all Super Bowl ads is arguably Apple’s “1984” commercial.
Film Director Ridley Scott launched the Macintosh computer into the homes of millions. Aside from the obvious literary reference to Orwell’s dystopian novel, the commercial shows you an alternative reality, and promises a better future so that “1984 won’t be like 1984.”
A more modern take on this happens in the 2018 commercial “Alexa Loses Her Voice” (2018) where Alexa devices lose their ability to speak, so Amazon calls in a host of A-list celebrities to replace her and hilarity ensues. They positioned Alexa as an irreplaceable part of one’s daily life–a gap that could not be filled, even by big-name celebrities like Gordon Ramsey or Cardi B.
London-based ad agency Lucky Generals created the commercial “Alexa Loses Her Voice”, winning not only its first spot in a Super Bowl Ad but also the 2018 Clio Award for Best Direction.
This type of ad reminds us that people don’t buy products, they buy solutions to their current problems.
5. Promote Inclusion & Connect Humanity
Since #BlackLivesMatter became viral, conversations about racism, unconscious biases, and white privilege have been at the forefront of the national dialogue in the US. That’s why Google was spot on with the relevance and timeliness of their 2022 ad “Lizzo in Real Tone” featuring Detroit-born singer/rapper extraordinaire Lizzo to launch the Real Tone software on the Google Pixel 6. Featuring powerful singing and poignant lyrics performed by Lizzo, as well as dozens of photos featuring a broad range of BIPOC people, the commercial was well received.
Google’s own creative team was the brains behind the ad, and they nailed it. Being authentic isn’t easy when everybody is trying to hop on the “diversity” bandwagon, ending up looking more performative than true to their values.
6. Strike Comedy Gold
Though comedy is often hit or miss, when it’s done right, it’s one for the books. There’s nothing more shareable than a good laugh, after all. Let’s not forget that side-splitting commercial about a football player tackling office workers for various workplace faux-pas in “Terry Tate: Office Linebacker” (2003) for Reebok. They went on to create a series of nine “episodes” in the same vein. Why did it work? Simple. It made people laugh. And laugh!
The ad by the US ad agency Arnell Group risked only mentioning Reebok twice in passing during the entire 60 seconds, with a quick cut away to the Reebok logo at the end. Their call to action was to find more Terry Tate content on their website–which worked! While some polls indicated that viewers didn’t always catch the association with Reebok, the commercial was downloaded over seven million times from Reebok’s website. (Remember, it was 2003). We’d call that a win.
And let’s not forget 1977’s “Monks” commercial for Xerox. Could this be one of the earliest examples of the “mockumentary”, inspiring future cult classics such as The Office? When a monk is asked to painstakingly hand copy a multi-page document 500 times, he slips into a secret room where the Xerox team copies it for him. It’s a miracle!
Allen Kay (November 25, 1945 – November 27, 2022) was the American ad exec and businessman behind this commercial, conceiving an unexpected plot twist paired with concise technical descriptions that did a great job of capturing the attention while informing the viewer of the capabilities of a Xerox printer.
2023’s funniest Super Bowl ad was probably “Brighter Boston”. Picture this: your cousin from Boston daydreams about a friendlier, cheerier Boston as he (tries) to buy some Sam Adams lager. Your favorite Boston movie scenes, accents, and tropes take center stage with a “bright” spin.
This commercial stood out from the crowd by not slapping you over the head with A-list celebrity appearances. Comedian Lenny Clarke makes a cameo as does basketball player Kevin Garnett, but otherwise, this Super Bowl ad lets the script–and ever-catchy Steal My Sunshine–do the comedic heavy lifting. It just goes to show that pairing the unexpected with well-known stereotypes is comedy gold.
7. Create a Catchy Tune
If there’s one thing that can be transmitted from afar and spark a memory, it’s music. “One Hit For Uber One” (2023) where famed rapper and music producer Sean “Diddy” Combs sets out to make a hit song to explain that Uber One saves members on rides, food deliveries, and more.
Not only did this ad create a catchy tune, but it also created many versions of it featuring great cameos of one-hit wonders such as Donna Lewis (I Love You Always Forever) and Kelis (Milkshake). Poking fun at themselves also made for a diverse cast that’s reflective of the social conversations going on today. Viewers were left with an earworm that they won’t get out of their heads any time soon.
The agency behind the brilliant campaign was Special Group U.S., which also did the precious Super Bowl ads for Uber Eats.
8. Take Risks and Try Different Formats
When you do something truly novel that the audience hasn’t seen before, you are remembered for the sheer novelty of it. 2022’s “Screensaver” commercial for cryptocurrency exchange platform Coinbase.
Coinbase worked with Accenture Interactive agency to create a (somewhat blurry) QR Code that bounces around like a computer screensaver from 2002. It changes color and some music plays in the background. That’s it. That’s the commercial. While it left people miffed at the low-budget production quality as they struggled to scan the QR code that was constantly moving the spike in website visits allegedly caused the site to crash briefly.
Accenture Interactive was named World’s Largest Digital Agency Network by Ad Age multiple times in a row, so it’s not surprising that even their most low-budget ad was a hit.
If there's one BIG lesson all agencies can take from the Super Bowl is to take risks. In order to break through the noise, sometimes you have to become even noisier. It can be difficult to juggle a dozen different deliverables and still have time to get really creative. However, sometimes that creative spark ignites something truly special.
If nothing else, the Super Bowl ad parade is a great way to pull inspiration for something unique and interesting you can test for your own clients.
The Best Super Bowl Ad of 2023?
People were definitely talking about Tubi the day after the 2023 Super Bowl. The Tubi Interface Interruption ad, which fooled watchers into thinking that their TVs were being hijacked, was a true disruptor that won the Super Clio Award for best Super Bowl ad.
It was by all means a performative ad where the audience was pranked to unintentionally become part of the ad itself. And their hilarious reactions spilled onto social media. You can’t be a disruptor if you’re not willing to take risks.
How Agencies Create Winning Super Bowl Ads
If there’s one thing that’s common about the Super Bowl ads, it’s that they have virtually nothing in common from the outside.
So what’s the secret?
As legendary commercial director Brian Buckley says, “understanding the social and political climate” of that year will be integral to your ad’s success.
Successful Super Bowl ads have either:
The context of the time and used gags, music, and other elements that were having a moment at the time of airing,
Been bolstered by celebrities,
Taken a novel, less-is-more approach with a straightforward simplicity
Relied heavily on nostalgia,
Been bold to let the ad itself create enough buzz for their brand, or
Gotten people talking.
Having a clear vision is probably the most important factor for success–because all of these factors need to be perfectly aligned for a successful outcome. If any one of them doesn’t follow the vision, the final product becomes muddled or falls flat.
In today’s divided climate where social media vitriol can be as vicious from the far left as it can the far right, everything about your work should be intentional–and this means intentionally working with experts to ensure that the final product resonates with your prospective and existing customers and positively represents your brand values.
Super Bowl Ads Live On After the Game
Succeeding with Super Bowl ads today means planning for the entire life of the ad–which will extend well beyond the 30-second timeslot on TV. Today’s ads will be recycled, rejigged, reused, and republished in more ways than you can count.
It will be immortalized on YouTube, without question. Thanks to platforms like YouTube, TV’s reach is expanded, leading ads to garner many more views than during the Super Bowl itself. Not to mention, repeat views from people who want to watch the ads again and again and have the soundbites and clips used across the internet as memes, TikTok sounds, and more.
So you better have the YouTube analytics tools and methods in place to track your KPIs before your commercial goes on air; otherwise, you’ll have spent a whole lot of green without any evidence that it was worth it. (Read more: How To Create YouTube Analytics Reports in Minutes)
Use this exact YouTube dashboard template to bring your clients’ YouTube metrics to life! Start your free 14-day trial with AgencyAnalytics today.
Elyse Gagné develops branding and content strategies that unite businesses with their customers. A podcast junkie, you'll find her learning about the latest technologies and brand storytelling techniques while she gardens or hikes.