Super Bowl Sunday: Who Won the Advertising Game?

Commercials: an inconvenience to television viewers around the world. To some, it may seem odd that there’s one day of the year where Americans hush each other to actually tune into mid-program ads. These same people still pay for other services, such as Netflix and Hulu, or pre-record shows just to avoid ads. But – on this single day of the year – that all goes out the window. On Super Bowl Sunday, Americans don’t just get excited to watch football; they look forward to commercials.

This year’s Super Bowl certainly looked different, as cardboard cutouts occupied most of Tampa Bay’s stadium seats with real-life attendees few and far between. Those at home were advised to watch in smaller groups, and likely had strict policies against double-dipping. But in this strange time, one thing that didn’t seem to change was the excitement for the commercials that would air during the game.

Michelle Sullivan, COM’s Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, sat down to discuss this year’s Super Bowl ads – and came to the table with a plethora of qualifications to do so. 

Sullivan is a COM alum, who also happens to hold the honor of being a 2015 inductee to the “Society of Distinguished Alumni.” After graduation, she worked with brands like Starbucks Coffee and Legal Seafoods in their advertising departments. Sullivan has spent most of her career in the beer industry, working specifically with Samuel Adams and helping to launch the craft beer ‘revolution.’

In 2017, Sullivan returned to COM where she teaches classes in advertising, marketing and branding. Sullivan’s background and expertise allow her to uniquely understand the theory behind many advertisements, and to critique them in a way that differs from the average Super Bowl viewer. 

“I’m kind of always thinking about not just the ad itself, but what is the strategy behind the ad, because my career was more in the area of brand management,” Sullivan said. “So, what do we want to say about the brand? What do we want to own in the consumer’s head, in the consumer’s heart, and then what ads do we build to support that?”

Every company paying upwards of $5 million for a 30-second slot wants to be the commercial everyone talks about on Monday morning. A Super Bowl commercial has the ability to silence a room, cause an uproar of laughter, or completely miss its target. This year, longtime advertiser Anheuser-Busch showcased that, like Tom Brady, experience does pay off. 

“They had a spot called ‘Let’s Grab a Beer’ for Anheuser-Busch, and I thought that one was really well done,” Sullivan said. “I think it tapped in very well to where we are right now. It didn’t just push the product on us, it pushed more of that human connection. That sociability of ‘Hey let’s grab a beer.’ It’s that emotional moment where, whether something really good or something really bad is happening, we kind of want to connect over a beer.”

Anheuser-Busch aired multiple commercials for the various products they offer, but Sullivan said the messaging around their newly introduced Bud Light Seltzer lemonade stood out from the rest.

“The lemons falling from the sky, tying again back to 2020. Life gave us lemons, so we decided to make lemonade. I thought it was, again, really clever,” Sullivan said. “It certainly ties to their product really well, but it also ties to the moment that we all live through, without being kind of over the top serious, but also without being insensitive.”

Toyota took a different approach to their advertising strategy – airing a commercial that did not highlight their newest vehicle, a change from previous years. Instead, they projected what Sullivan said was a “memorable message about who they are and what they do beyond just their product.”

“It’s obviously celebrating the wide diversity of people,” Sullivan said. “In this case, [it showed] an athlete with a disability and her journey from adoption to the amazing success she’s had as an athlete. I think that message really, really stood out for people.”

While many companies woke up to praise on Monday morning, others faced criticism.

“The Uber Eats spot was all about eating local. Meanwhile, local restaurants feel that because of the onslaught of these delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub, and Uber Eats, they’ve actually had their business model impacted severely in a negative way,” said Sullivan.

This year’s Super Bowl was different in many ways, but one aspect truly lacking was the presence of a commercial that stole the night. 

“I don’t think there was that one that had everyone talking and in agreement that that one won the Super Bowl,” Sullivan said. “I missed that, so hopefully next year.”

Christopher Kattak, Staff Writer

Originally from New Jersey, Christopher Kattak is a first-year master’s student studying public relations at Boston University.  Before attending BU, Christopher received his Bachelor of Arts in communication from Sacred Heart University, where he gained corporate communication experience. Christopher began playing ice hockey when he was four years old and continues to have a passion for the sport. Christopher is excited to be a writer for The COMunicator. 

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