Last year, Super Bowl ads got woke. This year, they largely went back to sleep.
Advertisers sidelined politics and stuck to the more mainstream playbook of levity and celebrity in Sunday night’s spots, in the belief that viewers have had enough hard-hitting issues in a year of #MeToo, the Russia investigation and the national- anthem controversy at NFL games, according to marketing gurus.
“The showing this year was not very good,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, CEO of the agency NSG/SWAT. “With the current political climate, I think there’s a sense that people are playing it safe.”
Famous faces and light-hearted tones led the way after last year’s ads waded deep into politics.
“Everyone is saying 2017 was a hard year, and marketers are going back to that humor,” explained Jennifer DaSilva, president of Berlin Cameron.
Ad watchers said Amazon set the tone with a spot in which digital personal assistant Alexa loses her voice — and stars such as “Hell’s Kitchen” overlord Gordon Ramsay, Bronx-born rapper Cardi B and “Hannibal Lecter” Anthony Hopkins step in as replacements.
In the chuckle-inducer, Ramsay castigates a millennial who asks Alexa how to make a grilled-cheese sandwich (“It’s name IS the recipe!”), while Cardi B simply refuses to comply when a senior says, “Alexa, play country music.”
And Hopkins, sounding every bit the “Silence of the Lambs” villain, tells a woman looking for her boyfriend, “I’m afraid Brandon is a little tied up.”
“They did a good job of pitting human against machine,” DaSilva said.
Kia replaced last year’s humorous environmental message with a wistful ad that imagines classic rocker Steven Tyler aging in reverse.
Meanwhile, Hulu’s oddly prescient push for “The Handmaid’s Tale” a year ago gives way to an ad for a new series set in the intertwined world of Stephen King stories, “Castle Rock.”
And while Budweiser scored big in 2017 with its pro-immigration message in light of President Trump’s controversial travel ban, the brewer tried to get everyone on the same side this year by highlighting its contributions to hurricane relief.
In the heart-tugger, a bottling-plant honcho gets bad news in the middle of the night that a natural disaster has struck. He hauls himself into work before dawn to switch the beer plant over to bottling water while a somber cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” plays in the background.
“Beer drinkers will support this message,” says Jarrod Moses, founder of United Entertainment Group.
Similarly, brewer Stella Artois attempted to pump up its own do-gooding by bringing clean water to impoverished countries, but spokesman Matt Damon’s star power falls flat next to Bud’s down-home charm.
“It’s ‘the real heroes of Budweiser’ vs. ‘supporting a cause that Matt Damon is associated with,’ ” DaSilva said.
Other major brands — such as rivals Coke and Pepsi — went for unifying messages of inclusion.
Coke’s “The Wonder of Us” is a pan-ethnic parade of smiling soda-drinkers that promises a Coke for “he, she, him, me and them.”
Pepsi’s “Celebrating every generation” tag line serves its open-to-all message with a side of celebs who’ve endorsed the brand over the decades, including Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson.
“Coke vs. Pepsi was alive and true this year — they’re very similar messaging that they’re for everyone inclusive,” DaSilva said, adding that Coke’s dearth of celebrities made its spot more endearing: “Coke’s message is a little more powerful for me — the celebrity angle feels more false.”
But Beth Mock LeBlanc of MLB Creative said that no amount of caffeine could have kept her awake through the minute-long Coke spot.
“I almost fell asleep watching the epic Coke commercial,” she said.
Marketing pros agreed there were some indisputable stinkers — like Febreze’s ad about a guy whose “bleep don’t stink.”
“Any air freshener could have put that together and it doesn’t differentiate them in any way,” said LeBlanc, who called the spot “sophomoric” and “really dated.”
And Australian wine-makers Yellowtail soured judges with a computer-generated kangaroo that reviewers found childish.
“At least they’ve elevated their tone from last year’s ad that totally objectified women,” said DaSilva.
But the stars aligned in a mash-up ad for Mountain Dew and Doritos, featuring a rap battle between Peter Dinklage and Morgan Freeman.
“Hey [parent company] Pepsico, follow up this exceptional spot with a holiday TV special. You have something here,” raved Moses. “Captivating and spectacular. I’m buying both!”
At least one company was not afraid to get political — PETA’s spot butchering meat-industry buzzwords such as “free range” and “all-natural” divided critics.
In the nearly two-minute ad, a gruff meat-industry exec tosses a cigarette butt on the ground, closes a door in a black woman’s face, and then goes into a church to confess to a frocked James Cromwell that his industry cooks up feel-good jargon to mask the horrible conditions to which farm animals are subjected.
DaSilva called it “an incredibly powerful message” and Moses praised it as “impactful” and “hard-hitting” — but LeBlanc, herself a vegan, threw a flag on the play.
“They try and shame you as opposed to changing minds, and that bothers me,” she said.