Alex Steer writes:

I’ve been in the US a few months now, and still know nothing about American football. So when I watched the Superbowl last night, I watched the advertising. I was looking for ads that showed some insight into how consumers here are thinking and feeling in the recovery. There were some clear hits and some obvious mis-steps. Here’s my (personal) take on the most expensive 30-second slots in the advertising year.

Some winners

Everybody was talking about Volkswagen’s Passat commercial before the game, and with good reason. On the surface this endearing spot about a small child in a Darth Vader costume does no more than use some human interest to sell a minor product feature (remote engine start), it tapped into an insight about our desire for technology to fit around our lives in subtle, even ‘magical’ ways. Its gentle tone hit a sweet spot for consumers who are seeking more humanity in the marketplace.

The insight behind Best Buy’s ‘Buy Back’ offer was really smart. They recognized that if consumers are no longer in recessionary lock-down, they’re weighing up their spending (especially on big-ticket items) much more carefully. Best Buy is helping its consumers feel more futureproof, and that matters. The ad, with Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber, was one of the most catchphrase-worthy of the night. (‘How many bloody Gs are there?’)

Verizon kicked off its ad with an almost-too-close parody of an iPhone 4 commercial – ultra close-up, heroing the product, a little overblown – before getting to the point: ‘Does your network work?’ Demand for utility is really strong in the US marketplace at the moment, and Verizon deftly exploited a gap between consumers’ opinions of the iPhone and the AT&T network, often criticized for poor call quality.

The real winner for me in terms of insight was Chrysler, with its ‘Imported from Detroit’ ad. It wasn’t the only car marque to run with a ‘made in the US’ message, but it was the only one to explore what that means in the United States now. More an ad about Detroit than Chrysler, it was one of the few spots of the night that showed foresight as well as insight, using Detroit (and the car) as shorthand for a recovering nation’s sense of injury, self-reliance and determination. There’s a lot of discussion – and divided opinions – about this ad in our US offices today.

Some sinners

We’re a bit divided, too, over the Motorola Xoom piece, which tried to do to Apple exactly what Apple did to Microsoft in its famous ‘1984’ ad. I don’t think it reflects a genuine insight into how people think about the iPad. For that reason it’s less strong than Windows Phone’s amazing ‘Season of the Witch’ and ‘Really’, which tapped into exactly how a lot of us feel about smartphones.

Like the VW spot, Chevy’s ‘Status’ commercial was a fairly human take on a minor product feature, but it the feature was baffling. A voice that reads your Facebook status updates as you drive feels like an awkward attempt by a car to borrow the brand halo of a social network, but just when enthusiasm for ‘always on, always sharing’ feels like it’s waning.

My worst offender, by far, was Groupon, whose campaign idea, ‘Save the Money’, is based on the idea of treating money like it’s a precious resource. The insight’s not bad, but their three ads badly misjudged US consumers. By making light of the threats to whales, Tibet and forestation, they seemed shallow and self-obsessed, and worse, prompted an immediate backlash online. Even if consumers find environmental concerns slipping down their list of immediate priorities, it doesn’t mean they want to mock them.

In all, it feels like the most-loved ads were those which had a powerful and durable insight behind them. The Superbowl’s the one night of the year when we pay real attention to the ads, but we expect those ads to be paying attention to us, too.

One thought on “Winners and sinners in the Superbowl ads

  1. andrew curry says:

    From leslie Koster:

    Lots of data on Superbowl ads!

    Looks like the Tiny Darth ad was best loved.
    Groupon and HomeAway garnered most hatred.

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