What were the most effective ads of Super Bowl LV?

The Highlights

  • 1 5-Star ad and 9 4-Star ads (down from 3 5-Star ads in 2020).
  • Huggies won the Super Bowl with its upbeat ad welcoming babies into the world – the first ever diaper ad in the Super Bowl, and the first FMCG ad to top our rankings since Doritos in 2016 and the only 5-Star ad of the night.
  • Advertisers played it safe with star power and familiar faces – 8 out of the Top 10 featured celebrities.
  • Of 2020’s Top 10 advertisers, only 2 (T-Mobile and Cheetos) made it into 2021’s Top 10 – both with sequels to last year’s ads.
  • One big trend is the rise of tech companies – 2 out of the Top 10 advertisers last year, 6 out of 10 this year. Two of the biggest debutants, with 4 Star ads, were tech firms – Doordash and Indeed.

Our Analysis

Super Bowl LV saw the sport try to carry on as normal in a world that’s still anything but. A big spectacle, but with barely a crowd. An audience watching alone and on Zooms, not at parties. And ads which tried hard to avoid the herd of elephants in the room, but couldn’t help reflect America’s changed lifestyles anyway.

The topline summary of 2021’s Super Bowl ads shows a low-key year for advertisers. Only 1 5-Star scoring ad, no technical spectaculars or inspirational storytelling, and a lot of jokey, small-scale ads with celebrities.

The top ad was Huggies, “Welcome to the World, Baby” (5.4 Stars), a typical ad for the diaper category in a very untypical place – the Kimberly-Clark brand is the first diaper brand to ever run a Super Bowl ad. The commercial made full use of adorable babies in a light-hearted montage welcoming newcomers to the world. After a year marked by loss on a massive scale, it was a welcome reminder for viewers that life does go on.

Welcome to the World Baby

Huggies

5.4

Huggies ad does traditional things very well, and that’s the story across a lot of our Top 10. It was a conservative year for advertisers, who took few risks with their Game Night spots. There’s a few reasons for that. With Super Bowl ads so expensive, it takes a lot of bravery to try something different. With the pandemic putting severe limits on filming, it made sense to keep things low-key technically. And finally, many brands judged – rightly, it turns out – that the public wanted the friendly and familiar this year.

For instance, only two brands from 2020’s System1 Top 10 scored 4-Star ads again in 2021: T-Mobile, with an ad about Anthony Anderson and his mom squaring off on the field; and Cheetos, with an ad starring Shaggy and riffing on his 2001 megahit “It Wasn’t Me”. Both these are direct follow-ups to their successful ads from last year when Anthony and his mom starred again for T-Mobile, and Cheeros employed MC Hammer to reprise a hit.

Rather than show a lack of creativity, this repeat success shows the power of a good idea. Many good ideas have the potential to become Fluent Devices, the name for characters or scenarios which return again and again to power the narrative of their ads.

Team Anthony Anderson vs. Team Mama

T-Mobile

4.2

It Wasn't Me

Cheetos

4.1

Fluent Devices

One great example of a Fluent Device is the animated M&Ms characters, who have a fantastic track record in ads in general and at the Super Bowl in particular. Back this year with a tongue-in-cheek montage ad featuring comedian Dan Levy and people apologising using candy, the animated stars won the brand 2nd place in this year’s System1 rankings.

Come Together

M&Ms

4.8

Levy is only one of a horde of celebrities in this year’s best ads – 8 out of 10 of the highest-scoring spots used a celebrity, continuing a trend from the last few years of using famous faces to grab the audience’s attention in ads. For instance, third-place went to delivery firm DoorDash, whose ad starred rapper Daveed Diggs but (with all respect to Diggs!) its biggest draw was a non-human celebrity, Sesame Street star Big Bird. The spot featured a modernised rap version of “In The Neighborhood”, showing that cultural references (which grab the attention of our connection-making right-brain) remain a powerful way to make audiences feel good.

In The Neighborhood

DoorDash

4.7

Any signs of COVID?

So far, so normal. What about the herd of elephants in the room – the fact that Super Bowl LV took place in an unthinkably changed context from Super Bowl LIV? Was there any acknowledgement from advertisers of the Covid-19 pandemic, or of America’s political turmoil, or of the Black Lives Matter movement?

In general, no. In stark contrast to the ads of last Spring, there’s not a mask or a Zoom call in sight in the Super Bowl ads. The only advertiser to try and really address America’s divisions – Jeep, with their 2 minute Springsteen epic “The Middle” – managed to please nobody and landed a 1-Star ad. And while the high-scoring Super Bowl ads are highly inclusive, there’s no wider political context imposed on their Black stars.

The Middle

Jeep

1.8

To be clear, these are all the right decisions for advertisers. As the UK’s Christmas ads this year showed, there are definite limits on how much audiences appreciate advertisers being topical – ads that explicitly mentioned Covid-19 performed worse at Christmas than those which offered a bit of fun and escapism. And it seems to be the same story here. Contrary to the pronouncements of some marketers, people really don’t expect brands to take a stand in ads.

However, ads are part of culture, and the changed world was reflected at Super Bowl 2021 in more subtle ways. The only ‘serious’ ad in the Top 10 was for job-hunting app Indeed, which offered hope at a time when unemployment figures and economic anxiety are high thanks to the Pandemic. Another 4-Star ad, from mortgage firm Rocket Loans, deployed humour and celebrities (Dave Bautista and Tracy Morgan) to support its message reinforcing the need for financial caution.

The Rising

Indeed

4.3

Certain Is Better

Rocket Mortgage

4.2

The other way this year’s ads reflected a changed world was the rise of tech. Last year 2 of the Top 10 ads were from tech firms. This year, with audiences ever more reliant on screens to keep in touch with loved ones, 6 of them were. As well as delivery service DoorDash and T-Mobile urging phone users to keep up with family drama, the list included a first Top 10 appearance for Nintendo promoting its Switch console not just as a games machine but a way to keep fit while sheltering at home.

Serena Williams

Nintendo

4.7

So 2021’s ads looked at first like more of the same, but a closer view showed subtle shifts. Will these trends – towards tech, the comforts of home and family, and escapist celebrity ads – be sustained? That depends on whether advertisers recover their appetite for risk, and whether audiences want them to.

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