By the end of the third quarter, there wasn’t much doubt about the outcome of the game. But suspense lingered about how the ads would perform in this high-stakes contest for brands and their agencies. Advertising holds up a mirror to society, nowhere more than the premier advertising event of the year, the Super Bowl. This year, we saw the following themes:

  1. Paramount+ opens up a new front in the streaming wars. To date, streaming services launched with relatively little media advertising behind them, relying on the power of their content and pricing to gain subscribers. ViacomCBS put a lot of marketing muscle behind its Paramount+ service, with four celebrity-packed, high-production-value ads in the first half in a sequential storytelling style of climbing the mountain. I suppose ViacomCBS was trying to describe the mountain of content it offers, but the ads struck me as an apt metaphor for the challenge ahead for any new streaming service trying to win subscribers in an already-crowded field.
  2. Humor reigns but with a gentler style. Past Super Bowls have seen over-the-top, satirical, or harsh types of humor. Given the stresses of both the pandemic and politics, advertisers softened their style. In GM’s “No Way, Norway” ad, Will Ferrell starts off with condescending sarcasm about Norway’s lead over America in electric vehicles and punches out a globe. But when he arrives in “Norway” (which actually turns out to be Sweden), he announces “This place is adorable. Dammit!” toning down his aggressive competitive attack. Along with GM, Amazon’s “Alexa’s Body,” Doritos’ “Flat Matthew,” and Uber Eats’ “Tonight I’ll Be Eating” all used humor and levity to provide America a much-needed escape from pandemic fatigue and cultural division.
  3. COVID-19 is present but in the background. In the lead-up to the game, the industry was abuzz with speculation about how brands would handle the pandemic. For the most part, they gave it a tangential mention. Bass Pro Shops made the most explicit reference to the pandemic with the now-cliché line, “In these trying times … ” and Bud Light’s “Lemons” was more lighthearted but showed painful situations, like ruined weddings or canceled flights, that breached the “fourth wall” of the audience’s desire to forget the pandemic in the name of entertainment. More were like Scotts’ reference to the fact that backyards have “had quite a year” or DoorDash’s charming mash-up of Daveed Diggs and the Sesame Street gang alluding to the pandemic-induced rise of delivery services, encouraging people to “get more from your neighborhood.”
  4. Valiant efforts are made at promoting unity. With roughly 105 million people tuned in to the broadcasted and streamed game, the Super Bowl brings people together like little else in these days of media/device/streaming audience fragmentation. Could this coming together be leveraged to bridge other divides in the country? The NFL tried with its “As One” spot, liberally using images of the pandemic but with a message in its final frame equally applicable to the political arena: “It takes all of us.” Jeep’s “The Middle” ad more explicitly addressed the political divisions in the country. From its choice of location (the geographical middle of America) to middle-America hero Bruce Springsteen as spokesman, it extolled the virtues of finding common ground.

In most years, Super Bowl ads fade within a couple of days of the game and advertisers resume their normal schedules. But this year, I expect this is the opening salvo of more on-air battling among Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon, Discovery+, etc. With GM’s big bet on phasing out internal combustion engines by 2035, other automakers will likely enter the fray to tout their electrification strategies. And, without a doubt, as the vaccination effort spreads, people will be eager to return to normal life, and brands will be there with messages encouraging them to put the pandemic behind them and spend money. Unity? That’s likely a bigger challenge than Madison Avenue can master.