What makes a Super Bowl ad great? To me, it comes down to storytelling. Stories resonate with people long after the ad campaign is over. Good stories create emotional connections. To be useful, they must strategically support your message, especially with a Super Bowl ad costing $5.6 million for 30 seconds of air time. So which Super Bowl ads of 2020 told the best stories? These stand out:
Jeep: “Groundhog Day”
Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” ad featuring Bill Murray exploded across social media on Super Bowl Sunday for good reason: it was Bill Murray’s first national ad, the ad capitalized on the enduring popularity of Murray’s 1993 Groundhog Day comedy – and of course it actually was Groundhog Day on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s a lot of meta meaning in one ad. The best part of the ad was the brilliant re-telling of the Groundhog Day plot, in which Murray’s character keeps waking up to the exact same day again and again. The ad recreates key scenes from the movie, with a few big plot twists: Murray makes a getaway in a 2020 Jeep Gladiator with a groundhog in the passenger seat (“thus significantly altering his days for the better),” and Jeep’s new e-bike makes an appearance. The ad includes the tagline, “No Day Is the Same in a Jeep Gladiator.”
I love this ad because Jeep incorporates the story of Groundhog Day. Jeep also trusts that enough viewers of the ad will either remember the movie or have someone explain the reference to them. But even if you know nothing about Groundhog Day, the story of Bill Murray’s getaway from a snow-bound town in a Jeep is hilarious – and a perfect way to make viewers aware of the 2020 Jeep Gladiator and e-bike.
This is an emotional and brave story. In the ad, an elderly widower asks Google Assistant to share details about his late wife, Loretta. “Hey Google, show me photos of me and Loretta,” the man says. As photos appear onscreen of the man and his long-lost Loretta over the years, his voiceover reflects on many memories.
“Remember? Loretta hated my moustache,” he chuckles. As the man asks Google for more photos and details about Loretta, the story of their life together emerges, such as a trip they took to Alaska (“Remember? Loretta loved going to Alaska, and scallops”) and how Loretta loved to watch Casablanca.
Within 90 seconds, the story of a shared life and love emerges. And Google demonstrates the power of Google Assistant in a warm, approachable way. One of the reasons I like this ad, besides its touching story, is how deft it is. Google could have easily overplayed its hand and gotten too sentimental. But Google carefully let the story speak for itself.
Budweiser: “Typical American”
Budweiser went for a purpose-driven approach with “Typical American,” which features everyday Americans performing heroic acts, such as a subway rider literally giving his shirt to someone in need. “Typical American” intones: “America, look beyond the labels. You might be surprised by what you find.”
Brands going for purpose-driven ads can make themselves vulnerable to charges of being phony despite their good intentions. Not so with “Typical American.” By using real footage of people helping other people, Budweiser gives the ad a sense of authenticity. Also, this ad is right for Budweiser’s brand. Budweiser is an everyday American product – it’s not a highfalutin craft beer. Budweiser seems to be saying, “America: we’re just like you.”
Porsche: “The Heist”
If you like car chases through the Black Forest of Germany, and thrilling camera angles worthy of a James Bond movie, then I suspect you liked “The Heist” as well as I did. In the ad, a masked bandit steals the new Porsche electric Taycan from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Germany. Security guards leap into action, resulting in a comical and high-speed chase through winding roads and narrow streets of a German town.
“It’s a beautiful day for a car chase!” One of the pursuers laughs as a slew of Porsches fly through Bavaria, leading up to a surprise ending with the tagline, “Finally, an electric car that steals you.”
I love this one because of the ad’s simplicity: it’s a car chase. But boy, it’s an exciting one. And not only is the ad perfectly on brand for Porsche, it also may well change perceptions of electric cars – they can be fun, sexy, and fast. It’s a beautiful day for a car chase, and a beautiful ad, as well.
Doritos: “The Cool Ranch”
OK, this ad scores a touchdown for being culturally relevant and incredibly meta. Rapper Lil Nas X, who exploded in popularity in 2019 with his song “Old Town Road,” rides a horse into an old western town (get it?) to the iconic music of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Then he squares off in the dusty streets, about to take on the great gravelly voiced Sam Elliott in an apparent shoot-out . . . until “Old Town Road” kicks in, and the two engage in a hilarious dance-off before Lil Nas X asks, “Who got next?” and chomps on a Doritos Cool Ranch. Before the fade, Billy Ray Cyrus appears for a hot second, completing the cultural tour of “Old Town Road” with an homage to Lil Nas X’s real-life remix of the song with Cyrus.
The dancing is hilarious. The storytelling is brilliant. And the use of this now-famous song, including both Lil Nas X and Cyrus, creates a sense of comedic poetry. Here’s another ad that trusts its audience to get the inside jokes. (And yes, Lil Nas X really did ride a dancing horse, and Sam Elliott was really dancing in his spurs.)
The NFL: “Take It to the House, Kid”
This one was special. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NFL, the league incorporated a stunning ad into the actual presentation of the game ball to kick off Super Bowl LIV. At the start of the telecast, the NFL ran a video depicting a kid holding a football and sprinting through several NFL cities. As he ran, other kids joined him, energized by his spirit and determination to run. And he encountered a number of important people from NFL history, who encouraged him to “Take It to the House, Kid.” At the conclusion of the video, the kid in the ad actually appeared in the tunnel of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, where Bowl LIV was played, and presented the game ball to an official.
Wow. If this one didn’t make you appreciate the love of football and all of sport for that matter, I don’t know what will. This ad appealed to me because it told a simple story with a mystery: a child runs with a football, dodging other kids in a game, and makes it to the end zone. He keeps running, and running . . . but to where? Of course, the mystery was solved through an inventive approach in real time.
And it was fun to watch him encounter various stars from NFL history, such as James Brown and Joe Montana. (How many of them could you identify the different stars?) The brief tribute to fallen football star Pat Tillman was moving. Finally, including children running along with him supported the NFL brand effectively. The NFL told a story about how football transcends generations, leaving you to wonder who the next great stars of tomorrow will be and where they will emerge.
Well done, NFL.
Congratulations to the brands and their agencies who told some incredible stories on Super Bowl Sunday and the days leading up to the big game. Now, if only I had a spare $5.6 million to advertise the new book I wrote with Fran Biderman-Gross, How to Lead a Values-Based Professional Services Firm. I’d have loved to see Lil Nas X and Sam Elliott do a dance-off while Billy Ray Cyrus rests under a tree and quietly reads about the three essential elements of a brand foundation, including purpose, values, and story.
There’s always 2021!