It is no secret to the people who know me that I cannot even fake a mild understanding of football or any excitement about the sport. Yet, every year since we moved to California, I have been watching it mostly to see the Halftime Show and the ads. And this year it was just about the ads! I find fascinating to see what the different brands decide to focus on and whether the ad lands with the general public.
Last year I did the same with the Oscars, and it is quite interesting to compare and contrast the approach companies take for these events. Comparing the two audiences might help understand the tactics brands are using. Being aware of what audience you are addressing influences the message you want to drive. Interestingly the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony had the lowest audience in history in the midst of the “me too” campaign with viewers dropping to 26.5 million people. Similarly, this year’s Super Bowl drew the smallest crowd since 2008 but still bringing in over three times the audience at 98 million.
When it comes to ads, the Super Bowl ads are usually more expensive than those aired during the Oscars, but on average those Academy Awards ads can be 30 to 40 percent more expensive per user. The Oscars audience skews not just female but also well- educated and affluent with high disposable income. It also attracts a higher number of social media influencers making a better fit for certain brands targeting those higher-end consumers.
Apple who has had several ads during the Oscars including the first-ever commercial for an iPad in 2010 and then one entirely shot on an iPad in 2015 has been absent from the Super Bowl stage for thirty years, and many were wondering if this was the year for a return. But alas, Apple passed. It is interesting to me given the current stand Apple is taking on privacy that the company did not think there was an opportunity to send a message. Considering that despite all the negativity around Facebook its latest quarterly results show that daily active users grew in all geographies including the US, Apple could have read the audience well and thought it was not the right place for that message. Or it could be that this year, given the current battle between the NFL and Colin Kaepernick, was just not the right time to advertise during the game. It will be interesting to see if Apple will have an ad on Sunday the 24th and what the focus will be.
For the companies who did have an ad, it is always interesting to see what the focus is: business model, products, larger social message and this year there was certainly a mix of all the above coming from companies I consider squarely or loosely linked to tech.
The Core of the Business
Google and Amazon seemed to have chosen to highlight an aspect of their business that has become a cornerstone: AI and voice. Google had two ads one paying tribute to the military and showcasing the power of search in the context of jobs. While I appreciate the tribute to the men and women who serve, it did feel a little mercenary to boil down the message to “you can search for a job using our engine.” Maybe because of that I found the “100 billion words” commercial much more impactful. Focusing on Google’s translation service, it showcased the power of bringing people together, helping people, sharing experiences. The examples used in the commercial were highly emotional and built up to a feel-good ending that certainly put Google as an enabler of something good. This is a much less threatening positioning compared to the recent Google Duplex presented at Google’s Developer Conference that showcased where AI could take human to machine communication. While Google could have focused on other aspects of AI, like photography, I think picking communications as a way of building human connections was a great way to redeem itself from the somewhat dystopian picture painted with Duplex.
Amazon focused once again on Alexa and this time specifically on use cases that are not the best ideas: from an Echo collar that understands dog barking and converts it into dog food orders, to an Alexa enabled toothbrush that plays podcasts. Aside from being hugely entertaining, I like the subtle messages I took from the content; one, Amazon is experimenting much more with voice than what we see becoming commercially available but also that Amazon is not afraid to try and see what sticks by making it available. To counter that, though, there was in my view another message that not everything can and will be done with voice. One can sure read too much into everything so I won’t go as far as suggesting that Alexa turning the lights across the world on and off is ultimately what Amazon is envisioning for Alexa: global domination!
Current Social and Political Issues
Many believe that the Super Bowl is not the right show to push political messages and over the years we have seen most brands opt for more positive and uplifting messages, but this year three politically and socially charged ads stood out.
Hulu had a chilling ad presenting Season 3 of the Handmaid’s Tale which played on Ronald Reagan re-election advertisement “Morning in America.” You would have been sleeping at the wheel if you missed the parallel between the commercial ending with Elisabeth Moss’ voice-over saying, “Wake up, America. Morning’s over.” and the #MeToo movement and Oprah’s #TimesUp moment at the Golden Globes.
Women were also at the center of Bumble’s commercial as to be expected by the dating app that has women make the first move. While less spooky than the Hulu ad, Bumble spoke of female empowerment too with Serena Williams delivering a message of self-awareness, conviction, and purpose.
The Washington Post owned by Jeff Bezos ran an ad to pay tribute to the free press and some of the reporters that sacrificed their lives to do their job. Many reporters on social media criticized the ad as a waste of money that could have been spent instead to hire more reporters or pay existing ones better. Many, I included, however, applauded the commercial for speaking out straightforwardly against the danger of misinformation and ignorance. This commercial, more than the other two, shows how difficult it is to get it right especially when you consider the money involved to air those ads.
The Good of Tech
At last year’s Oscars, Microsoft decided to focus on AI but this Sunday for the Super Bowl, Microsoft had a great commercial showcasing how the new Xbox adaptive controller that, just like one of the kids in the ad says, allows everyone to play. True to Satya Nadella’s mantra that Microsoft’s goal is to empower everyone, the message was loud and clear: technology at its best is inclusive, not divisive. “When everybody plays, we all win” concluded the ad. Gaming certainly brings people together today more than ever as popular games like Fortnite are available on multiple platforms and allow gamers to play together no matter what device they are using. Gaming has also become an actual social experience which makes the Xbox adaptive controller even more of an enabler to communicate, part take, share, and game. While I am sure not intended by Microsoft, I could not help but think how ironic that message was in the context of the NFL and Kaepernick.
If I knew anything about football I would dare to say the commercials were much more entertaining than the game this year, but what do I know?