For those uninitiated in the church of football, last Sunday was the epitome of American sports events: the Super Bowl. While for some the half-time show may be the main attraction, for me it’s all about Brand Bowl – the parade of commercials that interrupt the game, courtesy of corporate America. Recently, several Super Bowl spots are even unveiled before the game, in hopes of gauging both reactions and media metrics well before the big day. The cost of a Super Bowl commercial has risen dramatically, from $2.2 million in 2000 to $5.6 million today, all for a 30 second window to leave a lasting impact on the audience, transcending living room discourse to become trending on social media. However, despite evolving with cultural and societal shifts, commercials are seldom more than carefully crafted messages designed to evoke desire in the consumer, often without consequences.
Until recently, the Super Bowl trifecta consisted of sports, snacks and sex. Brands like Carl’s Jr, GoDaddy and even wholesome Mr. Clean flagrantly objectified women, in a mislaid effort to target their assumed viewers: cisgender, heterosexual men. This myopic viewpoint has only shifted in the past four years, in tandem with a new social and political landscape consisting of #MeToo and a woman running for president. According to a study by Mensio, an AI television analytics platform, 90% of the commercials from this year’s Super Bowl featured women, compared to 74% last year. Additionally, 82% of the commercials depicted people from diverse backgrounds, in contrast to only 64% last year. Unfortunately, increasingly diverse representation was only impressive on one side of the camera. The sole contender was a space-themed Olay spot, #MakeSpaceForWomen, in which a beleaguered Katie Couric claims, “are we still talking about this?” and it seems as though we are, as women still fight to carve out space in the arenas of awards shows and sports events. Nevertheless, Super Bowl LIV, the first of the new decade, is stepping further in the right direction by bringing audiences more culturally diverse content with a greater emphasis on storytelling.
This year, Brand Bowl started off with competing Republican and Democratic spots – lest we forget that we are in an election year and the real big game is in November. Despite the contentious political climate, brands seemed to focus more on what unites us, with the majority choosing funny, lighthearted commercials while still highlighting their products, which in some cases focused on the omnipresent role of technology in our everyday lives. Hyundai’s “Smaht Pahk” is an example of this, as native Bostonians John Krasinski, Rachel Dratch and Chris Evans, highlight – in their hometown accents – the remote smart parking assistant feature of the Hyundai Sonata. It also featured a surprise cameo from Red Sox legend David “Big Papi” Ortiz, blending the trends of celebrity cameos, authenticity and technology.
Google and Amazon’s depictions of their products further illustrate how our devices are becoming intrinsic, seamlessly integrated parts of our lives with the advent of ubiquitous computing, which AI professor Ethem Alpaydin succinctly describes as “using a lot of computers for all sorts of purposes all the time, without explicitly calling them computers”. Amazon’s “What Did We Do Before Alexa” perfectly captures our growing dependence on technology, to the point where a life without it is incomprehensible. Our digital assistants now augment every facet of our lives, from setting morning alarms to knowing our favorite songs and, with the advent of smart homes, even bringing our homes to life. These customizable conveniences allow large corporations to enter our homes not just through television screens, but by laying in wait, quietly amassing a treasure trove of data with our every move. Commercials however, being what they are, gloss over the potential pitfalls of these products and services, focusing only on the convenience added to our contemporary, interconnected society.
The real winner of the Super Bowl however, was Google. In the past, their search commercials gave audiences a sense of unifying comfort in the fact that you are not alone in your searches if, like me, you Google “when is the Super Bowl” or more importantly, “best guacamole recipe”. Similar to previous commercials, this year’s “Loretta” is told entirely through the lens of user experience. The ad starts with the man searching “how to not forget” as he continues to use Google voice assistant to “show me photos of me and Loretta” and “play our favorite movie”. He proceeds to list all the things he wants Google to remember as we learn his wife is deceased. The commercial ends with “remember I’m the luckiest man alive” …and the audience’s tears. A quick search for #Loretta shows Super Bowl Twitter was a wreck, with almost every Tweet mentioning crying or tears, some with a supporting gif, or accounts of entire Super Bowl parties moved from the poignant commercial. The real plot twist is this: “Loretta” is a real person, albeit with a pseudonym. According to Google’s Chief Marketing Officer Lorraine Twohill, the narration for the spot was done by the 85-year-old grandfather of an unnamed Google employee, whose story inspired the commercial.
At a time when virtual home assistants like Alexa, Google and Siri are omnipresent, the growth of machine learning algorithms and data mining practices pave the way for ethical issues concerning privacy and surveillance. Both Google and Amazon’s spots implicitly further the idea that our information, location and now even our memories are being turned into the hot commodity of data, as we willingly trade convenience for privacy. But before you have too much time to contemplate that, you’re back to the big game! Overall, the Super Bowl LIV commercials succeeded in promoting the unique selling points of products and services across the board, transcending divides with humor, nostalgia and relatable life experiences.