Super Bowl reactions: Creatives dish on which ads worked and which ones fell flat

Audi, Kia, Skittles and 84 Lumber all aired Super Bowl ads this year

Super Bowl LI is officially behind us. After weeks of pre-teasers, teasers, gimmicks and even a few scandals, Super Bowl advertisers finally got their moment in the spotlight while the New England Patriots worked to overcome a point deficit and defeat the Atlanta Falcons.

This year’s crop of Super Bowl ads were largely defined by their political and social messages. Airbnb pushed a message of inclusion while both 84 Lumber and Budweiser referenced immigration in their ads. Audi was both praised and criticized for its spot advocating for gender pay equality – supporters commended the automaker for using the Super Bowl to tackle an important issue, while critics pointed out that Audi’s executive team is largely male.

Per usual, many of this year’s star-studded ads proved to be popular amongst viewers. Kia’s spot starring Melissa McCarthy placed number one on the USA Today Ad Meter, while Honda’s celeb-filled ad featuring Steve Carrell, Viola Davis and Tina Fey came in second.

The Drum has asked industry folk to give their thoughts on this year’s game day ads and discuss what stood out to them the most. Check out their responses below.

Lara Wyckoff, executive creative director at Bernstein-Rein

One of the few years where the game was more engaging than the ads. The majority were missing that “wow” factor. Most of the attempts at humor lacked insight and were hindered by poor production value. Audi — a beautiful, well produced sentiment but I’m not clear on its direct connection to the brand.

Coke felt much like the literal translation of a strategic brief. Wendy’s, with its cumbersome url at the end, assumed that people care enough to go through the effort of discovering more about frozen meat patties. However, Kia nailed it; funny, smart, timely and Melissa McCarthy.

Richard Kirshenbaum, chief executive of Swat Advertising

This past Super Bowl Sunday, I just wanted to taste the rainbow. After a polarizing election process with most people disagreeing on just about everything, there was something alluring about a respite; the great American pastime, hopefully offering the 4 F’s; fun, family, friends and food.

Yet, no sooner did the commercials air when I was bombarded with brands touting social issues. Akin, to the Oscars it seems that entertainment is now being used as a platform for social change. I for one, having pioneered this creative device many years ago (when it was unique), had that sinking feeling of “been there, done that.” More importantly, I just wanted time to relax with my family and friends and simply enjoy the game.

What I got were many overly preachy and heady commercials. Instead of being energized and entertained, the storm clouds came rolling in. Then finally, the sun broke through and the Skittles commercial aired. The concept wasn’t intellectual or divisive, just plain silly and funny. Everyone laughed and momentarily forgot the pressing social issues. I, for one, saw people come together with a laugh and even for a brief moment tasted the rainbow.

Katy Hornaday, vice president creative director at Barkley

Sunday night’s commercials were full of brands taking a stand on important issues.

It was certainly a more evocative showing than years past—with spots focused on everything from immigration to racism. And of course, something for the ladies: equal pay. Thanks to Audi.

While I applaud the company for tapping into an important topic and actually doing something about it, the spot itself felt like the “femvertising” of two years ago. A pontificating voiceover, overtly championing the rights of women.

Which, for me, made Kristen Schaal’s hilarious performance for T-Mobile and Melissa McCarthy for Kia, a welcome change of pace and a hopeful trend for the future.

Finally, instead of just talking about how great women are, we are showing them in all of their wild, funny and confident glory. And for a night that used to be studded with super model cameos and boys’ club humor, women are getting their moments in the commercial spotlight.

Like Audi said: Progress is for everyone. Even the ad industry.

Dennis Franczak, chief executive of Fuseideas

Super Bowl ads often seem to have overarching themes. Sentimental seemed to reign this year. Some brands captured emotion and nostalgia better than others. However, at the end of the day, once again humor probably won out for most viewers. We all love to laugh. Personally, I thought the Hyundai ad at the end of the game was the best: innovation, creativity and human emotion all in one.

My second pick was T-Mobile, with ads that felt different and yet perfect for the brand. Alfa Romeo didn’t resonate, just didn’t feel original or unique. As a challenger agency, I have to give a David vs. Goliath shout-out to challenger brand Kia. Great ad and right on brand.

Matt Bijarchi, chief executive and founder of Blend

This Super Bowl was a rare triple combination of excellence within the game itself, the halftime show, and the ads that surrounded it all. Brands were breaking new ground and echoing progressive cultural sentiments in a way we’ve never seen before, one after another.

Coca Cola, Airbnb, Budweiser and 84 Lumber seemed to address the Trump administrations travel ban head on, and Audi broke new ground with a brave spot about gender equality. Snickers gave us a live ad, Bai gave us Christopher Walken and Squarespace gave us John Malkovich. On top of all that, Gaga gave us her best and the game itself was unbelievable. We were spoiled.

Alyssa Georg, associate creative director, art director at SS+K

It was great to see that when American values are being auctioned off to the highest bidder that corporations are willing to put their super bowl money towards drawing a line in the sand. Rather than keeping their heads low until this political climate passes. Bravo to Audi, 84 Lumber, Budweiser, Coke and Airbnb.

David DeRoma, executive creative director and partner at Supermoon

Being raised a hardcore Steelers fan, it pained me to watch this game. So to be honest, what I was craving was comedy and only comedy. For that reason, I really enjoyed the NFL's "Who's Next," Mr. Clean's "Cleaner of your Dreams," Squarespace's "Who is johnmalcovich.com" (the long version), TurboTax's "Humpty Fall" (the long version), and the T-Mobile spot with Snoop and Martha.

Martha got the loudest laughs at our house with the "Can of Bisque?" line. So good.

Jen Bills, creative director at OKRP

This year, the Super Bowl gave us many thought-provoking commercials with brave, political messages. Many were moving and beautiful and big risks for the brands broadcasting them. But, make no mistake, the most dangerous spot we saw was Melissa McCarthy being hurled all over that Kia Niro spot. A woman unapologetically not meeting society’s expectations of her shape and speaking in her loud, astoundingly hilarious voice is about as controversial as you can get. That’s the most subversive thing that a woman can do in 2017, not give a damn and be funny-as-hell while she does it.

Dan Fietsam, chief creative officer at Laughlin Constable

Super Bowl season now runs, unofficially, from January 12th (when Intel launched its spot) until February 6th (the day after re-hash). So, I understand the critical need for longer form versions, a robust social media strategy and supplementary creative content.

However, it felt like we forget about the game itself. Many of the spots did not play well - or not as well as the longer version on line - during the game. Consuming the spot in the context of the game is truly one of the most powerful shared experiences in modern culture, and the smartest brands amplify the moment, not just the supplementary social media content.

Luke Perkins, executive creative director at North

I don’t know if I actually laughed at any of the commercials on Sunday. Sure, watching Melissa McCarthy try and fail to save the world is funny, but that spot might have been overshadowed by her SNL appearance. This year seemed to be more about making a statement.

Brands that are culturally relevant won on Sunday— whether it was Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way," 84 Lumber’s “The Journey Begins," Audi’s “Daughter," or Airbnb's "We Accept." We saw that the work from some very gutsy CMOs and agencies got all the attention. Good or bad, come Monday, these are the commercials that people are talking about.

Kevin Botfeld, senior vice preesident executive creative director at 22squared

To be completely transparent, I missed the first half. The game, the ads, the whole thing. But did I really miss anything? Nope. I had already prescreened most of the ads. Even still, I was hoping to be surprised someway, somehow. No dice. Sure, Kia made me laugh, Ford captured my eye with beautiful film, and a few courageous brands inspired me with their messages of inclusion.

But we were cheated of that one incredible execution that stands the test of time. Or that one Oreo moment where the second screen conversation captivates us more than the ads themselves. Truth is, more people talked about Lady Gaga and Tom’s epic comeback. And that was a huge miss.

Joe Johnson, executive creative director and executive vice president at Publicis New York

I refuse to troll. Negativity and divisiveness are taking their toll on this country so I will try to only be positive about the ads on the Super Bowl. Curiously, my favorite spot seemed to have the same goal. It’s a 10 Haircare deftly brought up the all-consuming topic of 2017 but managed to do it without being divisive. Because whether you love or hate Donald Trump, making fun of his hair has bipartisan support.

Of the brands that went right at the hot button topic of immigration, I thought 84 Lumber played it best. Because if you are going to take a stand, you have to land firmly on one side or the other or risk ticking everybody off. And they went all in.

You can check out The Drum's Super Bowl coverage here.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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