Nostalgia and its male icons overpower purpose and sadvertising at the Super Bowl

MC Hammer fronted Cheetos' Super Bowl offering

As the backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty gets another coat of paint, the majority of the Super Bowl’s advertisers relinquished their obsession with purposeful advertising in favor of pure, often familiar entertainment. But the problem with nostalgia is the past tends to skew male.

“Every client is putting out briefs about saving the world right now,” one agency chief told me early last week, as we were predicted what last night’s commercial breaks would look like.

We’d already had a peek at spots from Audi (saving the climate), Google, (saving memories) and the NFL (saving lives) and it looked like we were in for another night of somberly purposeful marketing, complete with slow-motion shots, violin-heavy orchestration and home movie archive footage.

But as the ads rolled out in order last night, we were proven wrong. Its advertisers appeared to have realized they might have an easier job of cheering up the world rather than saving it.

What’s the surest way of raising a smile? Bill Murray. Jeep waited until the last minute to throw down its A-list ace – a genius 1994 Groundhog Day throwback predicated on casting one of Hollywood’s most irreverent stars.

But the 20th century nostalgia kicked off well before the fourth quarter break.

Cheetos had resurrected MC Hammer in the form of an anthropomorphic picnic blanket, Snickers had (kind of) modernized Coke’s Hilltop for the era of the deathly selfie and Mountain Dew recreated The Shining with an aspartame-laden substitute for blood.

Squaresquare inexplicably had poor Winona Ryder lying prostrate in the Minnesota snow.

But Ryder, who played the absurd weirdo against her spot’s reliable cop antagonist, was an anomaly of solo female talent in a year dominated by throwbacks. Sure, 90% of ads included women – up from 74% last year – but the problem with “throwing back” to the past is the past tended to relegate women to supporting parts.

So, when the industry compiles its top 10 creative, it shines a spotlight on the joy brought by Bill Murray and Bryan Cranston and MC Hammer and Martin Scorsese and Sam Elliott and and Jimmy Fallon and Sly Stallone.

And because the power of memory is a shortcut to emotion, we hold those stars and their ads in higher esteem to the modern ubiquity of Chrissy Teigen, Maisie Williams, Sofia Vergara and Busy Phillips.

There were exceptions, of course. Ellen DeGeneres, who effortlessly blurs the lines of throwback and contemporary female talent, added star quality to an already well-scripted, well-conceived and well-produced Amazon Alexa ad. Rachel Dratch was arguably the secret comic weapon in Hyundai’s much-praised ‘Smaht Pahk’.

And then there was Microsoft, an advertiser that stuck with sincerity and won. It wrote its entire commercial around Katie Sowers, the NFL's first female and first openly gay coach who spoke straightforwardly about her dreams and challenges.

In a sea of funny testosterone, the authentic story stood out of the pack to be named the ‘most emotionally effective’ ad of last night’s commercialpalooza, according to System1. It was complete with slow-motion shots, violin-heavy orchestration and home movie archive footage, and proved that in harder times, audiences do not want to merely be entertained.

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