BEYOND THE MESSAGE & TONE: STRATEGIC STORYTELLING & MEDIA STRATEGIES IN SUPER BOWL LV COMMERCIALS
This is not your “next-day” Super Bowl review analyzing the messages and tones of the commercials. This blog builds on the idea that Super Bowl commercials are cultural assets that address and point to the important faultlines in the contemporary social, cultural, and political dynamics. I will discuss couple of important themes & stories from last night’s commercials that address and manifest important cultural faultlines in the Zeitgeist. On a related note, if you can find more about my reflections on the individual commercials, you can check my live-tweeted stories from last night.
A. SELF-SUSTENANCE: BUILDING SELF-SUFFICIENT, RESTORATIVE & REGENERATIVE SYSTEMS
GM, “No Way, Norway”, McCann Worldgroup
GM’s 90-sec spot stars Will Ferrell as he shows his anger about “Norway selling more electric cars per capita than the US.” He recruits Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to go to Europe to address the issue. The commercial unfolds with the note: “With GM’s new Ultium battery,” he says, “we’re going to crush those lugers. Crush them!” The commercial ended with the on-screen message: “We’re coming, Norway. 30 new EVs by 2025.” Audi Norway and Ford Norge leveraged this opportunity to joust with GM and responded to GM’s message with a commercial and a tweet, respectively.
Majority of the reviews of this GM ad — and the jousting ones — highlighted the humorous tone and the sustainability as the message. I read these commercials and this “tactical” jousting a little differently. This commercial, in my opinion, was one of the most prominent and political commercials of last night. Here is why:
- Self-Sustenance vs Sustainability: The sustainability is used to be mostly understood at the product level where the accountability is put on the shoulders of the brands. Rather, we started to see a more system level understanding of sustainability that I call self-sustenance. This system level understanding helps us to see how sustainability operates in systems like cities, regions, or as in the case of GM and the jousting Audi commercial, the nation state.
- Nations vs Nations: The nation-state as a governance structure and self-sufficient system is gaining importance, especially during the pandemic. Governments are enforcing stricter actions to be sufficient within their geographical boundaries. Every nation has taken and are taking actions to be sustainable within their own country. This joust between US & Norway also point out to this self-sufficiency mindset shaping the innovation & technology approaches of the countries.
- Brands vs Nations: We witness growing tensions between global brands and nations. Several auto brands and tech companies are having trouble with governments on several issues. For example, the auto brands — to follow up on the GM example — have strained their relations with several governments due to the imposed carbon-free goals and/or related deadlines by the governments. We are witnessing a lot of tension at the local-regional-national-global levels. Hence, that “globe punching” scene ;)
- Brand Governments: Consumers are demanding brands to express and enact new governance roles, the ones similar to their governments. We see GM taking that role for sustainability. More on the Brand Government concept here.
B. ORIGINALITY: THE DYNAMICS AT THE INTERSECTION OF REAL, COPY & FAKE
Originality persists to be one of the most important strategic storytelling topics of Super Bowl commercials, in particular, and the contemporary consumer culture, in general.
Previously, originality has been challenged mostly about copies of the real. In 2019 & 2020, brands in the Super Bowl have re-created or re-interpreted their own or other brand’s iconic commercials with some strong references to the original/real one.
In 2019, challenging the human parity fetish, “Alexa Lost its Voice” commercial pointed out that human is not the only original, but ‘the machine’ can also be original that cannot be copied by the human. Last year, for their #FixTheWorld commercial, Snickers recreated the iconic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial of 70s that was calling people to the hills. Similarly, last year, Porsche Heist mimicked the idea of the iconic Audi “Art of the Heist” campaign from 2005 by creating a grand theft like auto scene with 12 iconic Porsche cars stolen from their factory in Germany. Last year, Jeep has re-created the scenes from “Groundhog Day” movie with one extra detail: the Jeep vehicles integrated in the scenes. Again, Mountain Dew, recreated the scene from the “Shining” horror movie and added the product to the scenes. In 2020, “If Bud Light then Uber” spot was a reinterpretation of brand’s iconic Wassup commercial, but this time with the smart machines acting as comraderies.
This year, rather, originality concept has been mostly challenged with the fakes. The deep-fakes, look-alikes or 2D versions of humans in this year’s commercials have challenged the concept of originality.
The #FlatMatthew commercial by Doritos highlighted that the human socialite will be 2D & 3D versions of us. It was a rich storytelling choice and a big pain point for consumers during the pandemic as our social lives are basically interactions of our 2D versions on Zoom or social media. Our digital & Zoomified life is very 2D-oriented. With the hashtag #RealisBetter, Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer in “All-Star Cast” commercial has told us that “not everything is what it seems” and used look-alike celebrities. Verizon also played into this avatar/2D/3D representation discussion with animated avatar of Samuel L. Jackson. The previous year’s theme on re-interpretation has persisted with some commercials like Bud Light. Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade commercial re-interpreted the rainy wedding scene of the iconic Guns N’ Roses November Rain video (‘92).
“Authenticity is invaluable; Originality is non-existent” ~Jim Jarmusch
I find the originality discussions very interesting as our realities have been translated to the digital versions and will soon be expanded by augmented and virtual layers. The floating referent to the reality and disconnection from the original is an important pattern as our what we call real is going through a paradigm change. The loss of the original is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where reality becomes a network of images and signs without an original referent. More we have copies or images without reference to an original, more comfortable we will be adopting virtual and augmented realities almost as real experiences.
C. MEDIA STRATEGIES
The Super Bowl media strategy can be analyzed in three phases: before, during, and after the event. In the below figure, I have highlighted the strategies to cultivate, amplify and prolong during these phases and the corresponding tactics in small boxes for each phase.
Last night, we have witnessed some important media strategy lessons that worth sharing.
Cultivate as an important pre-game strategy. Pregame performances like teasers and hashtag communication are important tactics to cultivate the performance of the creative on the game day. It cultivates visibility, awareness, likeability and thus, increases the performance of the game. The post game data reveal that the teasers help with the game day performance of the creative. The brands majorly launch their teasers and hashtags a month before the game, around January. In the previous years, the pre-game cultivation was mostly limited to these 6 to 15 sec teasers, but this year we have observed that some brands like Amazon Alexa put the entire commercial on the Net days before the game day. You can read more about that here.
Seriality as an important amplification tactic. The media strategies during the event should amplify the awareness, message, visibility, likeability of the commercial. Seriality in the same event is a common storytelling strategy to amplify the impact of the commercial during the event. But this year we have seen that the seriality extending across years. #Tmobile’s commercial starring Anthony Anderson and his mom is a continuation from last year’s Super Bowl. Bud Light’s Knight was also a character in last year’s commercial.
Amplification as a strategy for the non-SuperBowl creatives. I applaud the T-Mobile’s creative and media strategy team that have turned the T-Mobile crisis around and scored big. They didn’t let the banned commercial go to waste with clever tricks to migrate the consumer to other platforms to seek, find, and watch the actual commercial. Some other brands have used similar tactics to inject themselves into the moment and ride on the tails of the other brands’ buzz.
WINNER: With their 5 sec ad, Reddit showed that the rules does not really matter because great brands are vision and nothing else….
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