Creatives dissect 2023’s Super Bowl ads

The best advertising engages, entices, and entertains. It’s a welcome guest in our living rooms. And the thing that usually separates welcome from unwelcome is creativity.

After a brand’s size, creativity is the next biggest lever to pull in the pursuit of effective advertising. And TV is the most creative canvas a brand has – audio and visual together coming from room-defining high-definition screens into the lives of huge audiences during high-quality shows.

The Super Bowl is a creative landmark every year. And it’s one of the few times in the advertising calendar when people at home are actively anticipating advertising and then piling in to give their thoughts about it.

So, we invited a panel of top UK creatives to chew over the creativity on offer at this year’s Super Bowl in front of an audience drawn from the creative community.

What was good and what was, well, not quite so good? What themes emerged? What could we learn? Answering these questions were Jonny Parker, ECD of VCCP, Noel Hamilton, ECD of Neverland, and Aidan McClure, founder and CTO of Wonderhood on a panel hosted by Thinkbox CEO, Lindsey Clay.

It was a fantastic, sprawling evening full of good humour and wisdom. A number of themes emerged, so here are some of the highlights from these creative leaders’ observations…

Security/comfort blankets

Aidan McClure thought that a theme in this year’s Super Bowl ads was security blankets, with creativity not necessarily pushing boundaries: “It might be because of the economy or what's going on. People have sort of latched onto things that they know will work 7/10, but no one's really gone for 10/10.”

The touching ad by Farmer’s Dog in which Ava and her dog Bear grow up together was a case in point. Noel Hamilton: “It was a very traditional story…[but]…had the most social activity during the game, which is interesting because it doesn't have celebrities, it's not comedic. I think it's very telling. It just shows that some traditional approaches are quite effective.”

Another source of comfort was nostalgia, with Hamilton highlighting Rakuten’s ad featuring Alicia Silverstone reprising her character in 90s classic Clueless as a good example. “It’s a good fit for the brand. They didn't have to shoehorn that in. It just made sense to use her as a character for that.”

Employing celebrity

Alongside Silverstone, many other celebrities featured prominently in this year’s batch of Super Bowl ads – to the extent that McClure identified one theme as “what will celebrities do for money?”.

But plenty of the celebrity appearances were applauded. Jonny Parker tipped his hat to Pepsi, using Hollywood A listers Ben Stiller and Steve Martin. “I think what’s really smart about it is they're debunking all the other use of celebrities selling their wares, selling their souls for brands.”

McClure also praised Rakuten for avoiding being gratuitous in their ad, saying that their use of celebrity was right for the product – even if it was a little bit cheesy. “If you're going to use a celebrity,” he said, “it's got to work 100%.”

Taking the Soho bubble hat off

For Parker, analysing the Super Bowl ads reminded him to take his “Soho bubble hat off”. “We've got to think about what’s popular”, he said, “and what does our audience actually want. We're here to entertain them because we're interrupting their lives.”

This was true of the E.l.f. Cosmetics ad featuring The White Lotus star Jennifer Coolidge (and co-written by the show’s creator Mike White). It celebrated the brand’s Power Grip Primer, which has become a viral hit on TikTok for its ability to grip makeup.

“I think it's really clear it's just a product demo”, said Parker. “It's brilliantly cast. It just made me chuckle. It's 30 seconds long. It's a good solid telly ad. It's not going to win Cannes, but I really enjoyed it – and I think normal people would really enjoy it as well.”

Don’t forget jingles

“Bloody love this ad”, said McClure of the Uber One ad starring Diddy in which Uber One execs ask him for a hit song for the brand. As well as the nostalgia again at play in the ad – it draws on hits from the 1990s to 2010s – it was also a reminder of an under-used creative approach: the jingle.

Jingles are really effective but under-used, argued McClure. “I think a lot of people are too cool at the moment to write a jingle, so it has to be done ironically, like this one. They allow you to get your brand in in an interesting way. It's a big opportunity but can only be done ironically at the moment, I think.”

The joy of craft

Unsurprisingly, a panel of ECDs were finely attuned to the craft of the ads on show. The Squarespace ad in particular caught Parker’s eye, and kept on catching it. “This is my favorite. I've watched it about 20 times again today. I think this is all about the craft and the nuance and every detail is impeccable. The script is amazing, the sound is amazing, the performance is amazing, the production is amazing. It's fantastic.”

Shamelessly selling stuff

There were many times the panel admired many of the Super Bowl ads’ hard – if often knowing – sell. Coors Light, Squarespace and others were unafraid to repeatedly remind the viewers exactly what their ads were for.

It seemed to be a more American approach. “I think Americans are brilliant at that”, said McClure. “I think in the UK maybe we're a little bit shy of overly selling.”

Hamilton agreed. “[Uber One] said the name of the product about 19 times. I think that's a level of genius – if you can do that and entertain people at the same time.”

Even Google was at it for their new Pixel. McClure: “I think it's another great learning from our American chums just how to sell. When you've got a product that is really good just show it, let it breathe.”

Which ad “won” the Super Bowl?

While Parker went for Squarespace, there was unanimity from Hamilton and McClure. They agreed that the PopCorners ad reuniting Breaking Bad’s Jesse and Walter White was the game’s winning commercial creative, arguing it was a great idea, brilliantly executed.

“I think you can really see it's authentically done,” said McClure, “like someone who knows the show inside out has done it. I think it's really interesting”. He also thought it was pretty brave: “The client’s saying "Right, our product's like meth””.


Final thoughts

To close the event, the panelists each offered some creative advice, all of which you should commit to heart:

Hamilton: “Keep it simple and commit. Commit to whatever you're doing, which is what a lot of Super Bowl ads do….That doesn't mean it can't have a lot of scenes and things happening, but I think the idea itself has to be simple.”

McClure: “What you're going to be remembered for is the thing, isn't it? Just one thing and be remembered for that. Then [there’s the] importance of music. Again, that's just so critical. TikTok's made it even more critical, the way they're using music. As advertisers, we've just got to bear that in mind [and] creatives have to bear that in mind really early on.”

Parker: “For me, the only other thing is sweating every detail. Great TV ads come down to great craft. Once you've got your simple idea…just sweat every single frame. Every frame has to be worth its place. It's harder said than done in the real world.”

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