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Playing it safe is dangerous: Super Bowl ads a fumbled opportunity

This year’s Super Bowl reportedly drew 102 million viewers on Fox and streaming platforms

Much-anticipated Super Bowl ads collectively fumbled a golden opportunity to make a statement on the biggest sports day in America.

Chin up, Kyle Shanahan — you’re not the only one who whiffed miserably on an opportunity to make a statement on Super Bowl Sunday.

The advertising industry, which — unlike you — had a full year or more to game plan and strategize for the biggest sports day for advertising, fumbled too.

Don’t agree? Show of hands: Name one ad that audiences will remember this time next year — or even a month after Super Bowl LIV? An ad consumers will reference for making a statement, or an impact? (We’ll wait.)

Was there an ad that conjured up meaningful emotions — a spot that reminded you why sports is the perfect appetizer for generating conversation we all can participate in?

Can you even name a visual that somehow remained lodged in your hippocampus — if so, why? (We have all day, and the Shakira-J-Lo halftime show isn’t an option.)

For the reported $5.6m that advertisers dropped for the most expensive 30-second spot, hands ought to be going up like cell phone flashlights in the stadium.

“No Time to Die,” the next James Bond film, was the most expensive TV spot in this year’s game (according to Variety, MGM spent roughly $5.69m on the 30-second spot). You probably wouldn’t have guessed that.

It’s not surprising, something happened in advertising a few years ago; those of you who are close to it can put a finger on exactly when the shift happened. Brands collectively decided that humor is the way to go — and often silly, frat-boy college humor; shallow and passive sells. Safe ... sells.

Simon Yoxall, managing partner at Iris, a global creative innovation network that counts Samsung, LEGO, adidas, KFC, and Starbucks among its brands, agrees: “It’s down to risk-aversion, not wanting to alienate themselves and trying to appease a broad customer base, explains Yoxall, who leads a team of creatives from Iris’ New York office. ”Playing it safe is dangerous – you risk meaning nothing; brands that can successfully and credibly root themselves in to the culture that a consumer is interested in, and do so in a ‘stand out’ way, are going to find much greater success, and long term success at that.”

Safe. Maybe that’s what Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers 40-year-old head coach was thinking — as his 9ers fell apart in the fourth quarter, and the Bay Area watched what should have been a comfortable 20-10 lead evaporate at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Playing it safe proved disastrous.

You’d think Shanahan would’ve learned from his past; he’s the same guy who, as offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, is credited with relinquishing a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI over the New England Patriots. He lost that game too – in overtime.

But enough about Kyle; he’s got the next several months to think about his playing-it-safe strategy, and how it doomed his opportunity to be among youngest head coach to win a Bowl.

Marketers have resorted to playing it safe, too — embarrassingly copying each other and ultimately collectively watering down the game while no one is bold enough to make a statement to forge true connections with their consumers.

Before you say there’s already enough purpose-driven marketing in media and in sports, I’ll stop you right there and remind you that you’re better than that.

Before you say Doritos and “statement” don’t go together, for example, I’ll stop you there as well.

Consumers might not readily connect Starbucks with championing a diverse and inclusive culture, but that’s exactly the message it gets across with its #whatsyourname campaign, and did so effortlessly.

Few would have picked Budweiser to be the brand to highlight labels — but it did just that when it challenged Americans (and indeed outsiders) to look beyond the “typical American” stereotypes and showing Americans as diverse and different. Typical, in fact, looks good on you, Budweiser reasons — all while reminding consumers that “this Bud’s for you.”

After using celebrities and humor in their commercials, Kia Motors America made a strategic pivot to strike a more authentic tone with their consumers with its 'Give It Everything’ campaign — where it told the story of the hard-working men and women behind the[DB1] Kia Telluride at its manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia.

The authenticity struck a chord, and Kia quickly saw results to its bottom line, explained Russell Wager, director, marketing operations.

“Kia’s sales increased 4.4% last year in a contracting industry, driven largely by new customers who saw our ‘Give It Everything’ message and identified and related more to the Kia brand, and what Kia stands for,” explained Wagner.

Wagner added that Kia also ramped up its focus on America’s youth, specifically in a campaign with NFL running back Josh Jacobs, who championed a message of hope and determination and was the centrepiece for a Kia spot that launched the 2021 Seltos SUV, entitled ‘Tough Never Quits.’

Sports — and particularly Super Bowl Sunday — is the perfect platform to up the ante, to give consumers something to talk about, even when we all don’t agree. (Cue the Donald Trump campaign ad here.)

We understand that not every ad has to have a celebrity hammering home some cause; and not every ad has to make you feel like there’s a finger pointing at your head. Of course, political ads do what they do — there’s rarely any gray area there.

But what isn’t debatable is that 2020 America is not your parents’ America, and it’s time the advertising community collectively says “amen” to that and challenge each other to be better.

The America — heck, the world — we live in at least makes an effort to be transparent, even at the risk of alienation.

This year’s Super Bowl reportedly drew 102 million viewers on Fox and streaming platforms — amassing the game’s first upswing in linear viewership in five years, the 10th-largest overall audience in the game’s 54-year history, according to Fox.

Further, the nostalgia — and anticipation — that came with Super Bowl ads from bygone years is gone; brands in the digital age strategically release their prized spots days (sometimes weeks) before the big game, all in the name of getting more eyeballs on their handiwork, and to supposedly appease and satisfy a content-starved consumer market.

Still, none of this should mean the work is stale — and that’s where we are.

As a result, consumers are harder to impress, and brands have to rightly push themselves to be better, to be different, to create content that people will remember.

If brands are risk-averse, congratulations — they’ll end up being Kyle Shanahan, forced to explain themselves in a press conference.

Remember the heat Charles Barkley took in 1993 with his “I am not a role model” Nike ad? He made a statement knowing that it came with risk, even ridicule — particularly since the spot first aired two years after one of Barkley’s most controversial moments, when in 1991, Sir Charles was suspended for one game and fined $10,000 after he tried to spit at a racist heckler.

The loogie ended up hitting an 8-year-old girl.

The message was clear: parents, not athletes, should be role models — and Barkley seemed the perfect spokesman.

Colin Kaepernick will (probably) never play football again in the NFL, due in large part to the stand he took. But fifty years from now, Kaepernick will be remembered. Isn’t that what every brand wants?

It’s time for advertisers to stop hiding and dare to be more creative and fearless enough to step out on a limb for the sake of making something that people will care about after the wings are gone.

Much has been said about Google’s “Loretta” ad, which features a man who uses Google Assistant to reminisce about his presumably deceased wife, Loretta, by searching for photos and other memories from their marriage and their digital life. The spot won the day and made the emotional hairs on your neck stand up.

The spot took risks — knowing that such powerful feelings of sadness, even death, might upset or even offend consumers on a day that’s reserved for revelry. The details — the “whys” — in the spot hardly matter, and Google won by showing people that they care about what we care about. And, oh by the way, they succeeded in making consumers see Google Assistant in a whole new way.

Add Iris’ Yoxall: “Brands are guilty of quite literally embracing the Super Bowl as an ‘entertainment’ spectacle, which it of course is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use it to say something more meaningful that hits deeper and lasts longer—especially when you consider the spend to be on that stage.”

Later for safe; it doesn’t sell anymore. Try bravery; try making a bold statement about your customer’s emotional needs, not their product needs — and try building affinity with your audience with purpose-driven work.

They’ll likely remember your work past February.

Mark W. Wright is a sports journalist and has written about sports and culture for ESPN (and other outlets).

Find out more about The Outsiders, a partnership between The Drum and Iris to celebrate different thinking and different thinkers.

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