What’s This Year’s Big Super Bowl Ad Trend? Depends On Which Expert You Ask

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When it comes to the biggest question on Americans’ minds this week – what advertising trends we’ll see in the Super Bowl XLIX telecast, the old saying, “Ask six experts, get nine different opinions,” is something of an understatement. Checking with six different experts – Advertising Age writers Jeanine Poggi and Jack Neff, in their January 26 and 27 reports; Adam Padilla, president/CCO of New York ad agency Brandfire; Ted Calkins, Clinical Professor of Marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management; and his colleague, Marketing Professor Derek Rucker – proved that with a vengeance. “[A]lready trends have emerged that will define this year’s big game for the ad industry,” Poggi writes. The problem is, nobody can agree on exactly what those trends are.

For example, what will the overall tone of this year’s advertising be?

According to Poggi, it will be “plenty of the standard sentimental marketing messages.” Prof. Calkins concurs, saying we’ll be seeing “generally positive, upbeat ads.” Yeah, right, said Padilla in an email. Standard sentimental, positive, upbeat messages like “[n]ear nudity, implied profanity, potty humor, gross-out humor, double entendre… Anything goes during Super Bowl.”

While Prof. Rucker predicts “more ‘safe advertising’ this year given various incidents within the NFL,” with “[b]rands likely be[ing] careful to not offend given the sensitive climate brewing,” his colleague, Prof.Calkins, points out, “There will also be a shocking ad exploring men as violent abusers. The NFL is taking a risk running a dark ad about spousal abuse. Advertisers won’t say it, but they can’t be happy with the NFL’s decision to run to a dramatic, dark spot about domestic abuse.”

What’s more, Padilla notes, what’s “safe” in Super Bowl advertising would be shocking almost anywhere else, because lots of Super Bowl ads strive for the same can’t-take-my-eyes-away drawing power as a gory car wreck. “If your commercial contains something too shocking, edgy or gross to ignore,” he says, “it becomes part of the cultural conversation, and will be passed around social media like a dirty note in class.  Advertisers know that the must-see moment is viral gold, so expect many to punch below the belt in an effort to create buzz around their brand.”

Speaking of being passed around social media like a dirty note in class, one trend almost everyone seems to agree on is a shift of advertising dollars to social media – aided and abetted, at least in part, by NBC’s record-high pricing of $4.5 million for 30 seconds in the midst of a rotten economy. “Look for brands’ online behavior during the game,” Prof. Rucker advises. “Social media is [sic] reaching a new level of intensity with advertisers rolling out elaborate campaigns on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms,” Prof. Calkins adds.

That’s certainly true in connection with advertising’s sudden discovery that fathers aren’t idiotic oafs (see below). As Poggi notes,

“Nissan is tapping YouTube creators to make short online films that celebrate the ways that dads make life better for their families and strive to find a work-life balance. Unilever’s Dove Men+Care released an extended 60-second version of its upcoming Super Bowl commercial, which pieces together fathers interacting with their children. And Toyota has released a short film for its “One Bold Choice Leads to Another” campaign, featuring current and former professional football players and their children discussing their relationship with their fathers.

(“It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile” lives again!)

Padilla points to one trend you’ve probably already seen in action, as pre-releases of Super Bowl commercials (and longer video versions) flooded social media this month. “The Super Bowl isn’t just an evening of advertising,” he says. “It is a weeks-long marketing extravaganza.”  Several social media researchers have concluded that this is destroying the Super Bowl ads’ suspense and surprise, causing consumers to lose interest. But audience research from last year’s Super Bowl would beg to differ. While tune-out during average television commercials runs 3 to 4 percent, Kantar Media found, it’s only 0.7 percent for last year’s average Super Bowl commercial. And 78 percent of viewers would rather watch the Super Bowl with commercials than without, a Venables Bell & Partners survey found.

Another universally agreed-on trend is a shift in the way Super Bowl commercials depict men, specifically fathers. From an industry that’s historically portrayed fathers as clueless klutzes, “There will be ads celebrating men as role models and providers,” Prof. Calkins notes – so many, according to Neff, that February 1 will be “Father’s Day come early.”

Often ignored or portrayed as a dolt in advertising, the family patriarch is finally getting his due…Proud papas will star in at least three Super Bowl spots — for Unilever’s Dove Men+Care, Toyota and Nissan — all of which feature fatherhood prominently and positively.

Dove Men+Care launched five years ago during the Super Bowl with a broader portrayal of men’s journey to full adulthood. This year’s Super Bowl ad focuses squarely on the fatherhood aspect of that journey around the #RealStrength hashtag.

Last year’s Super Bowl also had dads — notably from Microsoft, Cheerios and Hyundai — but fatherhood wasn’t as central to the storyline as in this year’s crop from Dove, Toyota and Nissan.

“Talking to dads is just smart from a business perspective,” Jennifer Bremner, Dove Men+Care marketing director, told Ad Age. “Men are doing more shopping, dads in particular.”

But shopping’s only part of the picture. In a medium that always, except for outliers like ESPN, skews heavily female, 54% of last year’s Super Bowl audience was male, according to Nielsen data, and this year should be no exception.

So when all is said and done, what will be this year’s hot Super Bowl advertising trends? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

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