In a blog post immediately following this year’s Super Bowl, my colleague Joanna O’Connell said that ads in this year’s big game could be summed up as “trying too hard with mostly nonsensical and underwhelming results.” Of all the ads that played during the game, the winner of this year’s Try-Hard award was certainly Ram Trucks. Manufacturer Dodge used excerpts from a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr speech intertwined with footage of hardworking Americans and rugged Ram trucks to emphasize that — just like the most famous American civil rights activist — Ram Trucks are “built to serve.” During and just after the Super Bowl, we analyzed social media and found nearly 33,000 mostly negative mentions across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other blogs focused on Ram Trucks and its MLK-inspired ad. To understand the effects of the ads and how people remembered them over time, we investigated how consumers felt about the ads during the weeks following the Super Bowl via Forrester’s ConsumerVoices qualitative online community. Respondents clearly remembered Ram’s commercial: one remarked,“When I saw Dodge use Martin Luther King to sell trucks, I thought, man, that is terrible, that is so bad.” – US Male, 25-29.

On the other hand, automotive competitor Toyota released a series of ads around multiculturalism, acceptance, and determination in the face of adversity; these got overall positive press on social media and managed to keep that sentiment going. As one member of our online community commented: “I loved the Toyota ad about people of different faiths joining one another at a game!” – US Female, 65-69.

Both Dodge Ram and Toyota ads had emotional and serious undertones. However, it was the comical and easily most trivial ad that won social media and stuck in consumers’ minds the longest. Tide fully embraced its sudden and unexpected rise to pop-culture fame by running comical and lighthearted ads each quarter featuring actor David Harbour. Tide shows that any brand, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can create a lasting impression and ensure brand recall by tapping into consumers’ emotions.

In his report How To Advertise To Consumers Who Hate Advertising, my colleague Jim Nail states that consumers are looking more and more to put their values behind their spending and thus their brand choices, due to declining trust in institutions. Brands need to use advertising as a platform to highlight their values and foster connections with consumers. But, as this year’s Super Bowl showed, finding the right balance is challenging.