What Was That Super Bowl Ad Even Selling?

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Celebrities were all over last night’s Super Bowl ads. Did the stars overpower the brands they were supposed to be selling?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

  • The good Republicans’ last stand
  • The presidency is not a math test.
  • The new American Judaism

Promoting the Promoters

Many of last night’s Super Bowl ad breaks seemed to double as promotions for celebrities. An ad that focused on how Christopher Walken talks was immediately followed by an ad about how Arnold Schwarzenegger talks, but the products being hawked (in Walken’s case, BMW, and in Schwarzenegger’s case, State Farm) were almost incidental. And Beyoncé, of course, appeared in an ad for Verizon that was effectively a plug for her upcoming album.

The share of big-game commercials featuring celebrities has gone up dramatically over the past decade. Celebrity cameos tend to be a safe bet with viewers, and advertisers seemed especially cautious this year. The Super Bowl has never been known as a bastion of risk taking, but as Brad Adgate, a longtime media-industry analyst, told me, many of the ads this year played it so safe that they bordered on dull. Blame it on brands’ desire to avoid politics during an election year, or on the shock waves of last year’s Bud Light imbroglio, in which the brand faced major backlash after a promotion with a transgender influencer.

In past years, stars have been brought in to promote lesser-known products—especially start-ups looking to get on people’s radars. (In one infamous example, Larry David starred in a 2022 spot for FTX that advised viewers not to miss out even if they, like him, didn’t understand crypto.) But this year, with a few notable exceptions, most of the ads were for already-popular products such as Oreos, Mountain Dew, and Skechers.

Super Bowl ads are staggeringly expensive: A 30-second slot has cost about $7 million, adjusted for inflation, for the past couple of years (not including talent and production fees). Marketers live in fear of spending all of that money and not having a splashy ad to show for it, Allen Adamson, a branding expert and a co-founder of the marketing firm Metaforce, told me. Hiring a celebrity is also a useful way for brands to extend an ad’s shelf life: If a celebrity agrees to post about a brand to their own followers, that can make a company’s investment even more worthwhile.

But this year, the logic may have backfired. “In their zeal to get noticed,” Adamson argued, “marketers did lots more entertaining, less marketing and selling.” In other words, the celebrities overpowered the brands—and viewers might remember the celebrity but forget what product they’re supposed to be selling. Case in point: This morning, I had to Google which company Christopher Walken was promoting in the ad about his voice.

While some celebrity pairings with brands felt quite random (why was a parade of stars including Jelly Roll and Jennifer Aniston promoting Uber Eats?), some were genuinely well matched: Ben Affleck, a natural spokesperson for Dunkin’ thanks to his documented history of holding their iced coffee while looking relatably abject, appeared alongside Boston legends Matt Damon and Tom Brady in a 60-second spot that also starred Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Lopez. In a winking ad for CeraVe, the delightful and generally promotion-averse Michael Cera appeared as himself to pitch a roomful of “executives”: “So, my name is Cera. So it’s a perfect crossover opportunity.” The CeraVe ad highlighted a self-aware pattern in commercials that’s emerged over the past few years; as my colleague Jacob Stern wrote in 2022, ads attempt to “tiptoe around our skeptical trip wires by subverting the tropes that set them off.”

Celebrities have much to gain from Super Bowl ad spots, too, and not just financially. Stars now control their own channels of communications, perhaps more so than at any other time in history, but even the most popular stars can see their reach magnified by the game. For decades, the Super Bowl has been the most watched broadcast on television, and it gets high ratings across various demographic groups. That is not likely to change anytime soon: Some 115 million people watched the game last year, and this year may well surpass that (Nielsen will release its final viewership data tomorrow morning). It’s the rare mass-market event in our fragmented media environment.

Many of the stars in last night’s commercials rarely appear in promotions. But when they agree to it, they can see handsome paychecks—and reinforce their own relevance. Affleck, for example, reportedly made nearly $10 million on last year’s Super Bowl ad. If he’s going to be walking around with (and almost dropping) trays of Munchkins and iced coffees anyway, he might as well get paid for it.

Related:

  • Temu is speedrunning American familiarity.
  • Why a Super Bowl ad is the smartest way to waste $5 million (from 2017)

Today’s News

  1. Ahead of Israel’s anticipated ground offensive, Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 100 people in Rafah, a southern Gaza city where more than 1.3 million civilians are sheltering, according to the humanitarian organization Palestine Red Crescent Society.
  2. Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court to delay a ruling that rejected his claim of presidential immunity from criminal charges related to his attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
  3. A woman who opened fire in a Texas megachurch was killed by off-duty officers at the scene yesterday. Her young son is in critical condition after being wounded during the gunfire, and another man is injured.

Evening Read

Didier Ruef / Redux

The Friends Who Are Caring for Each Other in Older Age

By Rhaina Cohen

As Barb Buettner approached retirement, she was haunted by the question of how she would live in her later years. While looking after her parents, she had gotten a glimpse of the type of difficulties she might face. Her dad was lonely in his nursing home; Parkinson’s had worn down his body, but his mind was still sharp. His wife had Alzheimer’s, and he had few peers at the nursing home who could offer stimulating company. At least he had a daughter who could visit and care for him. But Buettner didn’t have any other close family members. She couldn’t help but wonder: What’s going to happen to me?

Lots of older adults are left with no one to rely on. In the face of such challenges, some have pieced together their own support system by relying on friends.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

  • Hezbollah goes to the theater.
  • Trump’s America will lose the climate race.
  • Godzilla minus the United States
  • Apathy loses.

Culture Break

Usher dances at the Super Bowl halftime show
Kevin Mazur / Getty

Watch. Usher’s Super Bowl performance breathed life into the halftime show, Hannah Giorgis writes.

Read. Ian Fleming created the superspy James Bond—and then couldn’t get rid of him, James Parker writes.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Last night’s Super Bowl was a bonanza for Millennials, a valuable demographic for brands—and one that is usually tough to reach as a bloc. Sitcom fans feasted on ads that referenced the aughties mainstays 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Friends. Music lovers (and anyone who has stepped into a nightclub in the past decade) enjoyed a halftime show featuring Lil Jon performing “Turn Down For What.” And Swifities, of course, were treated to on-screen cameos of Taylor Swift cheering on her tight-end boyfriend, Travis Kelce.

— Lora


Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

Explore all of our newsletters here.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Lora Kelley is an associate editor at The Atlantic and an author of the Atlantic Daily newsletter.

Source

Leave a Comment

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .