One of my earliest cartoons (back in January 2003) showed a large gathering of people socializing at a Super Bowl party and a guy saying “Time to come back! The commercials are starting again!”
The Super Bowl is the one time every year when ordinary people actively seek out advertising. I found a reference to a 2021 survey (but couldn’t find the survey itself so maybe take it with a grain of salt) that 43% of Super Bowl watchers in the US tune in just to see the ads. And Nielsen found in 2010 that 51% of viewers enjoyed the commercials more than the game itself.
Super Bowl advertising is a uniquely high-stakes environment in the world of marketing: a large audience (over 100 million viewers), a giant one-time investment ($7 million just for the 30 seconds of media time, not including ad production), and a rare window of undivided consumer attention.
This sets up a creativity paradox. Because the stakes are so high, the tendency is to play it safe. Yet playing it safe can lead to work that isn’t that memorable.
Part of the go-to Super Bowl advertising playbook has long been celebrity cameos. But many brands treat celebrities as non-sequiturs, relying just on the star power and not on how the star power connects to the brands.
I’m a fan of the work of System1 (who I first got to know when they were BrainJuicer). Each year, System1 analyzes Super Bowl ads by testing consumers’ emotional responses throughout an ad and assigning a score from 1.0 to 5.9 stars based on their prediction of long-term brand impact (and historical data from over 150,000 ads).
Last year, System1 gave T-Mobile’s Grease themed ad starring John Travolta, Zach Bragg, and Donald Faison the top spot at 4.7 stars.
At the other end of the spectrum, Squarespace’s Singularity ad starring Adam Driver scored only 1-star.
I like this insight from Jon Evans, Chief Customer Officer at System1:
“Celebrity alone isn’t enough to move audiences. If you could swap stars with no difficulty, the ad is not making distinctive enough use of a famous face…
“Last year’s best celebrity Super Bowl ads all did two fundamental things well. They featured several stars together doing what they’re known for, within storylines that fit the brands.”
Here are a few of the Super Bowl cartoons I’ve drawn since 2003: