Wharton's Americus Reed and Patti Williams discuss the 2019 Super Bowl ads.

If the Super Bowl is the culmination of a year of great football, then Super Bowl commercials are the pinnacle of great marketing. At least they should be. But the ads for this year’s big game, which cost a reported $5 million per 30-second spot, were decidedly lackluster (a word many also used to describe the game, the lowest scoring in the event’s history).

Sure, there was some humor and a sprinkling of celebrities, but critics said the commercials were largely devoid of the creative edginess that has become the signature of great Super Bowl ads. The result was a collective “meh” from consumers who took to social media to make fun of the commercials.

“I think there were a lot of good ads, I’m just not sure they were very good Super Bowl ads,” Wharton marketing professor Patti Williams said. “Many of the ads themselves were competent. They did what they needed to do, but they didn’t really fit with the sort of stupendousness of the moment. They kind of played it safe, low key.”

Williams joined Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed to offer a critical analysis of the 2019 Super Bowl ads for the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) The following are key points from their conversation.

Did the Goal Posts Move?

Reed conducted a thought exercise as he watched the ads, asking himself: What if the commercials were not airing during the Super Bowl? Would people like them better or be more receptive to the messages?

“I think the ratings would be different. They would be higher,” he said. “I think what has happened now is that the bar is just so high, and it’s just so difficult year after year to top what was really great the year before.”

When it comes to the creativity that has long been the hallmark of Super Bowl ads, the goal posts have moved. Marketers this year were content to go with good enough. The professors said most of the ads lacked an “edginess,” and even the feel-good ones ramped down on feelings.

Perhaps the current cultural environment is to blame, Reed said.

“We have to put everything into some kind of context,” he said. “I think the entire nation right now has a higher threshold for edginess. What’s weird and out of bounds and crazy? It’s just really different right now. So, maybe that also plays a bit into it.”

Williams pointed out that the top-scoring ad on the popular USA Today Ad Meter was the NFL’s own amusing take on its history, fumbles and all. She wasn’t surprised that the ad, which aired at halftime, resonated with viewers because it had all the right elements, including humor that worked.

“I do think it was a really good spot,” Williams said. “Everybody’s favorite players were there. They were having fun. They were enjoying each other. There was some toughness that the NFL is known for, but you got to see a little bit of their cheekiness and their personality.”

Reed agreed, saying the ad helps cement the NFL’s own powerful branding, which has been tarnished recently from scandals and controversy.

Wordplay Is the Name of the Game

While the Super Bowl commercials were a snoozefest overall, there were some notable exceptions. For the professors, the ads that used clever wordplay were among the best. That includes commercials for Dietz & Watson’s new “meat nuts” and Bubly’s flavored sparkling water.

In the innuendo-filled Dietz & Watson ad, actor Craig Robinson is sitting on a couch and munching a bag of meat nuts when a friend asks what he’s eating. The two get into an exchange reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” skit, and Robinson invites the friend to “grab a handful of Dietz nuts.” He follows up by asking, “How Dietz nuts taste?”

Reed noted that the product name — Dietz nuts — was repeated 11 times in the spot.

“What they’re literally trying to do is get you to rehearse that in your mind, ‘Dietz nuts, Dietz nuts, Dietz nuts,’ over and over again so that it’s a little bit sticky later on when you walk away from it,” he said. “They’re training you with these mnemonics to get it into your memory and create that rehearsal that will allow you to bring it to mind later on.”

Added Williams, “It’s very familiar to people, the sort of interaction that they’re having. And I think it’s not entirely clear what the [product is] in the end. But if I can remember the name, I can then go figure out what they are.”

In the Bubly ad, singer Michael Buble is deliberately mispronouncing the name of the product as his own name and writing over the can with a marker to change “Bubly” into “Buble.”

“People may be a little confused about how to spell it, too, and they’re really fighting against the La Croix phenomenon,” Williams said about the brand. “So, they’re really pushing the fact that you’re going to remember the name afterwards.”

A Big Win For Bezos

A big winner in the Super Bowl ad game is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, according to the professors. The commercial for Alexa is full of celebrities and pokes fun at the company’s own missteps with technology. Actor Harrison Ford is angry with his dog for using its Alexa collar to order food, and Forest Whitaker can’t listen to his podcast through his electric toothbrush because it’s inside his mouth.

The ad effectively humanizes a company that is often negatively perceived as bent on world domination, the professors said.

“There’s this dystopian stuff going on in a lot of those Super Bowl ads, where the robot is stealing jobs and the tech is haunting and scary. Amazon kind of stepped into that a little bit, but in a humorous way,” Williams said. “Sometimes we can push it too far, but here’s a funny example of that. I thought Harrison Ford was great. The dog was great. It paid off really nicely, I think, at the end.”

Reed agreed, describing the spot as self-deprecating. “It was really funny…. But also, soothing consumers’ concerns about a lot of these privacy issues is probably a smart thing to do.”

Bezos owns The Washington Post, which also paid for a commercial showcasing the value of journalism and using its slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

The venerated newspaper is highly critical of President Donald Trump, so an ad targeting his administration, even obliquely, was to be expected. But the commercial shows images of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi and others killed in the course of their work, as well as clips of Fox News anchor Bret Baier and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. That variety boosts its appeal to a wider audience, the professors said.

“When you put it on [during] the Super Bowl, you know there are going to be a lot of people with very diverse viewpoints watching that piece,” Williams said. “It’s really meant for all Americans, and quite deliberately highlighting those other journalists.”

The commercial is narrated by actor Tom Hanks. Reed said he would have preferred Morgan Freeman’s voice in the spot, but Williams said Hanks consistently ranks high with consumers in brand value studies.

“Tom Hanks is in the top five across Republicans and Democrats as someone that people perceive as having social value and really speaking and connecting with people’s values,” she said.

Even When They Lose, They Win

The professors agreed that even the worst Super Bowl ads are winners because they generate buzz. Consumers don’t turn the channel or use the commercial break for a trip to the kitchen; they stick around to see the ads that everybody else will be messaging and talking about.

“Even though it’s a lot of money to do one of these ads, I think sometimes brands just do it because they want to signal to their audience that they’re with it,” Reed said.

The Super Bowl commercial from Mint Mobile is a good example of the lose/win philosophy. Embedded in the ad is a fake commercial for “chunky style milk,” featuring a family guzzling down glasses of gloppy milk.

“Really strange all the way around, right?” Williams said. “But again, if what you’re trying to do is capture attention and make sure that something is just weird enough that it makes people say, ‘Wait, I need to know what this is,’ there’s a win there.”

Reed thought the ad was revolting. “Patti is an expert on emotion. She can talk about the emotion of disgust. But I’ve got to tell you, man, when I saw that, I was just like, ‘This is really off. This is over the top.’”