Episode #73: Your Guide to the 2021 Super Bowl Ads

The Super Bowl is a unique phenomenon. Part sporting event, part marketing, and all entertainment. Today we kickoff a multi-part series on the Super Bowl experience. But we’re not looking at the game itself. We’re doing an end run and focusing on what many consider the best part of the Super Bowl — the ads. We start with Alexa and Squarespace, and throw in some halftime show insights to top things off.

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Welcome to the CXM Experience. As always, I’m your host, Grad Conn, CXO, chief experience officer at Sprinklr. Kinda excited, actually. This is gonna be a fun week. I’m gonna have a really good time with something I’ve never done before, which is to talk at length about Super Bowl commercials. And maybe a little bit of Super Bowl and a bunch of stuff here and there.

The Super Bowl for me an incredibly visceral experience. I’m a naturalized American. So I’m new to the country. Lived in the US when I was very young. Born in Canada, but lived in the US when I was very young. Got pulled away and really spent most of my life and I’d say, a good percentage of my adult life, trying to get back to the US. Finally made it in 2015. So, it’s only been about six years, not even that. Probably about five and a bit years. And the Super Bowl is this iconic moment of Americana that… I think Americans do appreciate it, as evidenced by everyone getting together and having a party and eating seven-layer dip, and Cheetos, and everything else. But it’s really special.

This year with a flyover by the three bombers, the B-52, the B1, and the B2. The singing of the what appeared to be two different national anthems that you have. All the different things that happened in that game. And the way that they incorporated all the challenges of COVID. I thought it was particularly clever, they had 20,000 first responders in the stadium. And then they had 45,000 cutouts to keep everyone distanced. And to make the stadium look full. What was really cool, is that those cutouts were sponsored. So you could sponsor one, get entered into a drawing to get a ticket to next year’s Super Bowl. You paid for them, and then your face would be on one of those cutouts. It’s kind of neat. There was quite a wide variety of people who’d sponsored these things. And now we’re “in the stadium,” while not in the stadium.

So anyway, the Super Bowl’s a really special event. And I’ve been to a number of Super Bowl parties over the years. Moved to the US in about 2006 and went to a number of parties. But I gotta say that, for the most part, for a variety of reasons, I rarely have been able to watch the game, or the commercials. One year, it was just way more interesting to hang out with a bunch of really interesting women in the kitchen. Kind of went that way. One year I was running our Customer Experience Center at Microsoft. And we were actually live tweeting during the game. And so we were super taken with that. So the game was in the background. But we were obviously trying to run our social piece there. That was really fun. Last year had a really, really fun party with Rachel. A bunch of our friends over it was a great, great evening, great day. Don’t remember a second of the game. In fact, I had to remind myself who was playing last year and who won. I think I may have seen a bit of the halftime show, which was pretty cool. JLo and Shakira. I didn’t miss that. But otherwise it was mostly a blur. And then the reasons pile up.

But the NFL made a change. In about the early 2000s they made a change, and they added a week to the schedule. So traditionally, the Super Bowl had always been near the end of January. But sometime within January. They added a week to the schedule, and it pushed it into early February. And in 2010 for the very first time, the Super Bowl fell on February the 7th, which happens to be my birthday. And in 2016 it fell on February 7th again. Still my birthday. And this year, 2021 it fell on February 7th again, also my birthday. So, it was pretty cool to have my birthday and the Super Bowl. Not gonna get into all the details, but I had an amazing birthday this year. Rachel was… it was over the top. It was incredible. had an amazing day. Amazing time. I’m in Florida, it was warm, beautiful weather, just couldn’t have been more perfect. Fantastic gifts, great food, and the whole thing was is absolutely heavenly.

And then got to see the Super Bowl. It was really nice. And, got to see the Super Bowl. Because when you’ve got other people over, there are things going on, you might be watching a bit of the game, but you’re jumping up and jumping down jumping up and jumping down and missing things. This year, I just literally sat on this ridiculous Lovesac couch that I’ve talked about before in previous podcasts, and which is crazy comfortable. It’s almost too comfortable. There’s no such thing as too comfortable, but it’s almost too comfortable. And just watched the game and watched the commercials. It was glorious experience.

And so, I thought what will be fun this week is to spend a bit of time talking about those Super Bowl commercials. And I might spend a moment or two talking about the halftime show. I want to do that right now for a second. So, halftime show, featured The Weeknd, who’s actually a Canadian artist. That’s kind of cool. And a surprising number of hits. Most people have not heard of The Weeknd, but you’re like I know who that artist is. But I don’t know… I mean, I guess I haven’t seen every single halftime show. But I’ve seen a few. And there’s a really great ranking of halftime shows. Of all the halftime shows, and so far there have been a total — so the history, this is kind of interesting, too — they’re have been a total of 29. 29 halftime shows. I’ll tell you what the first one was in a second. In terms of the modern era. So, we’ll call the modern era of halftime shows. And The Weeknd came in at number 16, which was pretty good. I mean, well within the top half of halftime shows. I thought it was terrible. So, I would have put it closer to 29. But, nonetheless, it came in halfway on some of these lists.

Halftime show, most of you may know this. But for many, many years, it was really just college marching bands. And occasionally Andy Williams would show up, or there’s a group called Up With People. Very big in the 70s. They did, they’ve actually still to this date done the most halftime shows. They’ve done five or six of them. But in 1993, Michael Jackson did the halftime show, and turned it into must-watch television and everything was different after that. So that’s the history of the Super Bowl halftime. So generally speaking, 1993 is viewed as the beginning of the modern era of halftime shows.

And what do you think the most popular and the highest rated halftime show would be? Think about that for a second. Madonna? Very close. Number two, also an amazing one. Beyonce and Destiny’s Child? Also very close, but number three. Katy Perry, my favorite one, came in at number five. Still thinking? Michael Jackson actually came in at number nine, which is interesting. Lady Gaga, was an excellent show, number 10. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. That was last year, that was awesome. That is number 11. Maybe goes number one for me. And number one, it’s hard to argue, is Prince. Not only that it was Prince, and not only that he did a bunch of his great songs. And he had a tip of the hat to the marching bands of the Florida A&M University marching band team. But he played Purple Rain, in the rain. That was… I don’t know how he arranged the rain to happen at that time. But he killed it. Right? So that was awesome.

So, let’s go to commercials. And we’re actually going to spend a bit of time on this because people popularly talk about buying a super Bowl commercial as the way to get noticed. And what’s interesting about Super Bowl commercials is there’s three factors which I think are fascinating. One is that it’s become quite fashionable now to release your Super Bowl commercial before the Super Bowl. You can see it and talk about it, so there’s some buzz in the air before it appears on the air. Most Super Bowl commercials are a minute, which is wonderful. It’s a great creative landscape to paint on. It’s amazing to have a whole minute to do a commercial, which, you know, at one point in time, in the 1960s was the standard unit. But geeez a minute, it’s just amazing. And then they have all these recaps. So, you can go to all sorts of different sites where they have all the commercials, they talk about which ones are best, people argue about them. So, what’s interesting about Super Bowl commercials is that the commercials, they’re reasonably expensive. Generally run around five and a half million dollars for 30. So, it’s usually not double but it’s probably like 8 million for 60, something like that. But you get all this earned media out of it.

And so, the question is: Can you create something that’s interesting enough to drive earned media? And so, the way I’m going to evaluate these ads is I’m going to evaluate them from an earned media and social currency standpoint. Because there’s no way, although the reach is good. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of things during the Super Bowl ad breaks, for example, going to the washroom. So you can’t count on these ads as being massive reach, necessarily. But what you can count on them as being is big news, if you do the ad correctly. And so, what I’m gonna do, I’m not gonna go through every single ad, but I’ll talk about a few that I thought were maybe interesting. Maybe ones I reacted to, ones I thought were funny, ones that I genuinely laughed at. And thought, Oh, that’s really cool. I’ll watch that again. Or thought they’d done a nice job on it.

I’m going to start with Amazon Alexa. Oh… my Alexa just beeped in the background. It’s okay, Alexa, I’m not gonna… No, no, stop it. And they did an ad with Michael B. Jordan, which was the Alexa of one of the actors’ dreams. And so basically, the idea is they’re looking at the new Alexa, which is really cool. It’s essentially a sphere, very cool form factor. And the comment is, what would be a sexier vessel for a voice command device than this. And one of the actors looks out the window, sees a bus with a poster of Michael B. Jordan and then begins to fantasize about Michael B. Jordan being the vessel for Alexa.

It’s super funny. And there’s a longer version that they ran during the game. And then after the game, they ran a slightly shorter version as well. Alexa’s actually talking to me right now. Thank you very much. And I thought it was really clever because what they did is they managed to take something that was very prosaic, they essentially demoed Alexa doing things like getting the weather, doing a recipe, reading an audio book. Like just doing stuff. All the things you could do with Alexa. So, it’s like old fashion product demo advertising. But done in a way that was super interesting. Super engaging. The actress who was doing the fantasy was fantastic. She did a great job on it. Michael B. Jordan was Michael B. Jordan. He killed it. And the whole thing had a real charm to it. It could have come off weird. It could have been a little bit, I don’t know, could have been too dirty. Could have been too weird. Could have been too strange. I thought they managed to really walk the line. And I will say generally, Amazon advertising has been very strong. Whoever is doing that work and whichever agencies are involved, doing an amazing job of creating very watchable, very rounded advertising that feels very human, larger than life, but very contained. At the same time. This is quite an extraordinary brand story that they’re building around their advertising and I applaud anyone who’s involved in that. So great work.

I’ll do one more today. And then we’ll hit this. We got a whole week ahead of us. So, I’ll hit this again tomorrow. But the second one I want to hit is Squarespace. Now I will fault this ad for one thing, and I’ll tell you that in a second, but it was a really quite a beautiful ad. A beautiful ad. It was actually directed by an Oscar winner, Damien Chazelle. And it’s basically Dolly Parton singing not her famous song nine to five, you know, 9am to 5pm. But an alternate version, which is five to nine, 5pm to 9pm. And basically, the idea is, hey… they start with people at these boring jobs, potentially overdramatized. But it’s fine. I would say that if you’re that bored about your job, maybe you should find another job. It’s pretty brutal. But then five o’clock comes around, and bam, off you go for your passion. Essentially, side gig land, right? So, what’s your side gig? And then they show all these people flowering, and moving, and becoming dancers, and gardens. And they start to… like scuba divers, they start to live the lives they really want to live.

There is an undercurrent of incredible sadness about that. If you really want to go there. And I’ll say that people who I respect, Yoli Chisholm being one of them, actually do a really great job of pursuing the life they want to live not just five to nine, but they do it 24 hours a day. But let’s leave that aside for a second. That’s a bit of a heavy social commentary. Squarespace is all about hey, if you’ve got a side gig, we’ll make it easy for you to pursue it. The reason I’d fault the ads slightly… beautiful ad very engaging. I watched it very closely, is it Squarespace is just right at the last second. And I would say that the idea of side gigging at, very well communicated. But the idea of Squarespace, and why Squarespace is something that helps you run your side gig… now I know Squarespace quite well, because I actually have used it in my theater life. But does everyone even know what Squarespace is? So, I think it probably would have been potentially not a horrible idea to take a few seconds up front to introduce the idea of Squarespace, and what it does, and then play it out. But I get it. I get how they did that and, you know, I’m talking about it right now. So maybe I’m wrong. But really worth watching five to nine by Squarespace.

Anyway. So that’s today. We’re gonna continue talking about Super bowl commercials for the next few days. And I might throw in and pepper a few Super Bowl halftime show commentaries as well. But for today, that’s it. This has been the CXM Experience. I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you next time.