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Of the estimated 113+ million viewers who tuned in for the Super Bowl LVII in 2023, around 43% tuned in primarily for the advertisements — a far cry from those of us who groan at even 15-second-long ads. Super Bowl commercials have become a cultural phenomenon, with audiences anticipating creative spins from familiar brands and often comparing their favorites online afterward. While plenty of companies have secured these behemoth ad slots only to fumble the ball, many have stood the primetime test. By examining the patterns and themes of some of the most successful Super Bowl ads, business leaders can learn from the ultimate marketing play.
1. Emotion gets ads to the end zone
In fact, one of the most memorable and impactful Super Bowl commercials tugged at the heartstrings of the masses, opting for pathos in the form of puppies. “Puppy Love,” the classic Budweiser Clydesdales ad that debuted in 2014, appealed to human consumers not through the classic can-and-condensation combo but via an unlikely animal friendship between a Clydesdale and a golden retriever puppy.
With subtle themes of rustic patriotism and all-American heroism, the Belgian multinational brewing company wooed viewers via man’s best friend — and barely featured their product at all. In 2016, it was ranked as the most popular ad ever to air in the 50-year history of the NFL’s premier event. The lesson here is clear: wholesome content appeals to almost everyone, and authenticity is universal — eclipsing predictable, emotionally empty product placement.
When planning our 2005 “What Did You Ever Do Without Them?” commercial for Post-It notes, the 3M team took the same tack, opting for cuteness that resonates with a general audience. While this sentiment does play well, what doesn’t make the cut are the unique challenges of filming with unpredictable (albeit adorable) animals.
2. Americans huddle up for humor
Whether it’s a torrential downpour of lemons forecasted by Budweiser, Homer Simpson swiping his Mastercard or the rapid transitions and smooth-talking of the infamous Old Spice guy, Super Bowl audiences are looking for laughs between plays. Since laughter is shown to improve short-term memory, funny commercials are far more memorable, and so are the brands/products they represent.
While one-hit-wonders may have their moment, brands that establish likable recurring characters in their ads are especially adept at building brand awareness and memory recall of the hero products advertised. The average American will likely recognize Progressive’s iconic associate Flo, Geico’s recently-revived Caveman, Allstate’s mischievous Mayhem man and even Liberty Mutual’s seemingly inescapable LiMu Emu. The combination of clever humor and unique, original characters makes for an effective commercial that will continue to build and enhance brand awareness for years to come.
3. Social issues are shared goals
More than ever, Super Bowl commercials are addressing social issues, reflecting a shift in consumer preferences toward purpose-driven brands. By aligning themselves with meaningful causes and communicating their commitment to societal issues, brands aim to foster a positive image and build loyalty.
For example, Dove’s “Real Strength” commercial (2015) challenges stereotypical gender roles, including what it means to be a “real man”; Nike supported Colin Kaepernick’s social activism by featuring Kaepernick in their 2019 “Dream Crazy” ad. Of course, for these allegiances/political stances to be effective, companies must practice what they preach — which is to say that authentic initiatives within the company must also back up these public allyships. Otherwise, companies run the risk of a backlash similar to that against Budweiser following their controversial Dylan Mulvaney partnership.
4. Pass the ball to the consumer
Ads that end with a Call to Action go beyond traditional one-way communication, inviting audiences to leave a lasting impact. One effective example was Coca-Cola’s 2014 “#AmericaIsBeautiful” ad, which encouraged viewers to share their own moments of beauty using the company’s hashtag. The genius of this hashtag is in its simplicity; much like Budweiser’s “Puppy Love” ad, which featured a minimal branded product, #AmericaIsBeautiful celebrates the country rather than Coca-Cola. Impressively, the owned hashtag created an onslaught of positive conversation around the brand without actually using any branding. This interactive element cultivated a trend of user-generated content while extending the reach of the company’s campaign and engagement.
5. Celebrities are the MVPs
Whether it’s a cranky pre-Snickers bar Betty White, Ryan Reynolds parking a Hyundai or Harrison Ford chatting with an Amazon Alexa, brands often turn to celebrities to boost the appeal of their Super Bowl commercials. When humor and emotional substance may be lacking, there’s no substitute for star power, and when companies can combine clever scripts with well-known faces, a viral moment is all but guaranteed. That said, companies must be careful when seeking celebrity endorsements — choosing a celebrity who resonates with the targeted audience and whose image/voice aligns with the company’s brand values is essential.
With every Super Bowl, business leaders can become the brand consumers root for. Super Bowl commercials provide a unique and colossal opportunity to capture the attention of tens of millions of people who are not only exposed to the commercials but also look forward to them. Ultimately, the most successful are those who entertain and effectively communicate their brand’s message and values.