Corporate Video Lessons from Super Bowl Commercials (Part 2)

In Part 1 of our blog article on Super Bowl advertising and lessons to learn from the biggest agency commercials of the year, we looked at some of the weakest links and the reasons why some commercials just don’t connect with viewers. Whether the subject of the commercial or the product itself isn’t interesting, the biggest takeaways are refine your messaging and pick your audience. Avoid bland commercials that leave viewers bored or immediately looking away, which also has to do with where you choose to advertise. The commercials we will analyze in today’s blog entry are the “winners,” where the brands and agencies did everything right to earn free media attention beyond their Super Bowl spots.

The Kia commercial was almost the unanimous choice for “best commercial” among people with whom I watched and USA Today’s readership through Ad Meter. If a brand wants to check every single box, the Kia commercial is an example how to do it. Celebrity cameo? Check. High production values? Check. Funny? Check. Not only is the video shareable, but it’s rewatchable and communicates a clear message. I fully understand after seeing the commercial that Kia wanted to emphasize the car is fuel efficient and good for the environment. I also have a positive opinion of the brand based on the commercial: They have a great sense of humor.

One element of the Kia commercial that isn’t relevant to brands without large budgets is the success of the production and post-production elements of the commercial. As a viewer, I’m immediately captivated because the commercial simply looks epic and features a celebrity cameo. Ultimately, though, the success of the commercial is about the fantastic humor. Maybe what I found most impressive is almost all great commercials have a single fantastic punchline, because they are 30 or 60 second commercials, after all. The Kia commercial found a way to pack a bunch of humor into a short running time, which is a great lesson for any brand. It also communicated information in a way far superior to how most commercials manage, which is the difference between high-end creative work and boring advertising.

Think about many car commercials on TV and you probably have familiar ideas about what you’ll see: 1) No money down financing, some percentage APR, some lease deal or other financial details that are informative but boring, 2) Some mention of the city / highway fuel efficiency of the vehicle, which is also incredibly boring because nobody cares unless they intend to buy the car anyway, and 3) A bunch of pretty, extremely well shot but generally meaningless “car beauty” shots. After a while, each of these canned commercials start to feel the same. As an advertiser, you want to stand out from the generic commercials that consumers quickly forget. Focus on one key benefit and aim for “cool,” “funny,” or “sentimental,” with the important note that sentimental is probably the toughest to do correctly and may not work with everyone. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Budweiser made a fantastic commercial that tapped into American unity and sentiment at the time.

The other category of commercial, existing apart from merely “good” or “bad,” are controversial ads. Controversy is not necessarily a negative word, nor should brands avoid controversy at all costs, but understand it may have its price. Whenever a company takes a stand on a social or political issue, backlash is bound to result. Will you turn away consumers by entering the political fray? Are your main consumers interested in your company’s social and political views? In the 2017 Super Bowl, 84 Lumber took a chance on their immigration-themed commercial that was somewhat of a bizarre preview of a longer short film available on their Website. Audi’s “Daughter” went a similar route, only with gender equality, while Budweiser also made an immigration-themed commercial about its origins. Controversial ads can also be powerful ones, but they may create discussion around issues rather than about your brand, which isn’t certain to benefit sales or brand recognition.

The 84 Lumber commercial is the most illustrative of the risks of making a potentially controversial commercial. The commercial appears at first glance to be about two Mexican immigrants who embark on a journey North to America, but are eventually greeted with a wall. Initially discouraged, they eventually encounter a door in the wall. Conservative groups initially reacted with anger, thinking 84 Lumber was making an anti-Trump, anti-wall statement, but the CEO of the company is pro-Trump and pro-wall, telling People magazine, “We need to keep America safe.” I’m not sure people of either political persuasion are too pleased with the commercial, which has created such bizarre controversy given that nobody on either side knows what to make of it. Perhaps the biggest criticism is the lack of focus and lack of strong, simple messaging. The controversy generated seems unnecessary and unlikely to help the brand.

Other companies in the past have courted controversy with varying degrees of success having nothing to do with politics, like GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr.’s sexualized ads. Using sex appeal to sell products or promote brands is nothing new, but it may offend certain segments of the population. In today’s society, almost anything has the potential to be offensive if not treated incredibly carefully, so probably the most important consideration is remaining true to your brand and your brand’s values. When in doubt, focus on the product or service and find a twist that makes for a funny commercial that makes everyone laugh; leave politics and controversy for the news outlets. Of course, your mileage may vary and controversy can have the benefit of providing free media coverage to your brand, but it also has the potential to cause undue damage and drive away potential customers.