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The Super Bowl of Ads: Who Won?

02/06/2015 05:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

At $4.5 million for 30 seconds, did the Super Bowl ads do anything interesting? Sure, there were a few wonderful spots, but for every good idea, there were three that felt shopworn and ready for retirement. Things we'd like to put to pasture? Celebrities trading on their image (Kim Kardashian, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Lindsay Lohan); Underappreciated Dad tributes (Dove, Nissan, Toyota); and cars driving through a cloud of dust (Jeep, Lexus). Above all though, this year's crop defined itself less by the presence of pyrotechnics and pazazz and more by the absence of one thing: the product. Whether its Bud's lost puppy or Jeff Bridges' strange lullaby or the bracing "Always" audition reel, the vast majority of ads never showed us what the ad was for. In effect, this may crystallize the way the new generation is relating to brands.

According to a 2014 study by Initiative, three in 10 Millennials (aged 25-34) around the world are cynical about the way brands market to them, and that figure rises above 40 percent in the U.S. and U.K.. To win them over, brands have to show commitment to social causes and be authentic and trustworthy says the study, which surveyed almost 10,000 25-34-year-olds in 19 countries. In this finding lies a prefect summation of how brand relationships have evolved. In looking at the ads this year, we need to keep in mind that brands today establish their bona fides through three different benefits - functional (the quality of a product, its fact and features); societal (the brand's general benevolence towards the world, its commitment to things like the environment and empowering people); and finally, emotive (the way it makes us feel, offering a sense of security, affiliation, status, etc.) To work, brands have to operate along these axes; otherwise, they aren't really doing much beyond being distraction between downs and they certainly aren't winning over the most skeptical generation ever. Here is our low down on what worked and didn't this year:

Audience Favorites

Budweiser's Lost Dog:
The big winner this year, USA Today's Ad Meter ranking of the Super Bowl XLIX ads gave "Lost Dog" the top spot courtesy of a panel of 6,703 consumers. It's the 13th time in 15 years the Budweiser and Bud Light beer maker ended up on top. So was it that good? This was the unapologetic heart tugger of the pack, following a pooch's peripatetic journey across various landscapes and its rescue by a pack of Clydesdales (the only small allusion to Bud in the whole spot). Instead of filmic continuity, the style here is elliptical with New York agency, Anomaly, telling its story through a blur of vignettes, each one of a new different location and danger. It's a little cloying and manipulative (and the sharp scene changes don't always go with the soulful legato cover of The Proclaimers' "500 Miles") but it's also irresistible -- like an episode of the old TV show, Lassie and clearly angled towards tempering the brand's party-time image in favor of an animal rights theme. Here's how head of Anomaly Jason DeLand describes it: "It's about trying to create an emotional connection with the audience around the values that Budweiser holds true. They do have those values and they do care for those animals greatly." The big question is how it serves the beer beyond a vague associative warmth. Does the ad impel people to do anything beyond place Bud within a hazy memory of animal rescue?

Always #likeagirl
Proctor & Gamble's "Like A Girl" ad for "Always" feminine products came in second in USA Today's poll and in our estimation, it should have won. This commercial recognized that the message is sometimes the medium when it's this compelling, that you don't really have to do very much. Shot like an American Idol audition, this spot is poignant as it asks boys and then girls to do things "like a girl". The parade of stereotypes gets shown up by the pluck and bravery of real girls and it's moving. The message is a great one, building on the work of psychologists like Carol Gilligan who have long told us that (as the ad says) "a girl's self-confidence plummets during puberty". For "Always", it does all the things brand messaging should -- making us aware of the the ad's societal purpose, the larger context around the product. This is a brand in dialogue with society and ultimately it promotes female gender identity as sui generis and entirely great.

Dark horses

Toyota - How Great I Am
Few mentioned this breathtaking spot, but it was the best in terms of film craft of anything we saw during the Super Bowl. Featuring a voiceover from a young Muhammed Ali, it stars Sochi Paralympics medalist and double amputee Amy Purdy as she snowboards, drives, dances and cycles. Make no mistake, this is extraordinary work. The cutting throughout is first-rate, doing what great film editors do, slowing and speeding up the rhythms in time with the music and with Ali's punchy words, even pausing for silence (how often do we see that in a commercial?). Compare this to the predictable decoupage in the Budwesier ad and you see what stellar ad work really is. Kudos to agency Saatci & Saatchi LA and Creative Director, Michael Goldstein.

A Tie: Loctite Super Glue Dance & Sprint - Super Apology
While other ads were chock-full of CGI and apocalyptic images (TurboTax, Game of War, Mophie) some stood out by virtue of their retrograde simplicity. Both these ads seemed like a tonic in the middle of the Madison Avenue bacchanal that is Super Bowl Sunday. One used hold music over title cards (Sprint) and the other showed us an absurd dance sequence that preserved the integrity of the body moving through space in the same ways as a Fred Astaire film (Loctite). When everyone else is screaming to be heard, these ads learned that the best response is to go quiet or rustic, immediately winning our trust.

The Imitation Game: Fiat - "Little Blue Pill"
One of the techniques of Madison Avenue is what we called mimesis. Simply put, it's taking the personality and emotional character of a product and mimicking those contours in a mini-movie (which may or may not ever show the product). So, the Fiat spot, the first Italian commercial to be broadcast during the Super Bowl, takes the charm, sexiness, and Mediterranean bonhomie of the car to give us a clever vignette of a romantic encounter gone awry when a man loses his Viagra pill. This one placed third on USA Today's poll and it's a fine example of the European style of commercial making -- spry and irreverent. Fine work by Italy's Filmmaster Productions and director by Antony Hoffman.

Bad Ideas

BMWi3 - "Newfangled Idea"
This ad should have worked but didn't because of a nagging ethical question it unconsciously raised. It's clever because it cannily makes us aware of the internet revolution and just how fast it came. Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric star as bewildered technophobes, first coming upon the internet in 1994 (a real clip from the Today Show) and then on the electric, wind-powered-factory-made BMW i3. It works as an ad because their funny, beleaguered exchange nicely matches up with the jaunt and stuntedness of the i3. The problem? The slightly sour aftertaste that comes from having journalists (including the former anchor of the CBS Evening News) hawking products. Talk about a slippery slope. Should the Fourth Estate occupy the same role as pitchmen and celebrities? It scores on functional and emotional benefits but its relationship with the commonweal is tough to figure out.

Carnival Cruise Lines - Come Back to the Sea
A dud. A voiceover of JFK talking about the sea is laid over gauzy images of people on a cruise ship. The idea is egregious on a number of levels, not least of which is the non-consensual conscription of our 35th President into selling all-you-can-eat cruises with the same ardor and urgency that he brought to the founding of the Peace Corps and the Apollo mission. JFK was a veteran whose military vessel PT-109 was struck by a Japanese destroyer in 1943 so his feelings about water were resonant and bittersweet; all this is trivialized with images of happy, sun-kissed tourists. This one scores on its emotion (mostly supplied by JFK's voice rather than the craft of the image making) but shows vague functional benefits and no societal benefits. In fact, it makes Carnival look like they have little regard for history or adjudicating good taste.

The Super Bowl of commercials was ultimately a look at the future of brand management. We are now in a new era where we've moved beyond the functional benefits of a product and want brands that exhibit all the traits we expect in our friends -- pleasure-seeking but also purposeful, thoughtful but unpretentious and to be stewards rather than squanders of the planet.