Super Bowl Ads That Scored—Even When the Game Didn’t

The Spots That Flopped And The Ones That Flourished

Feb 08, 2021

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  Before football fans got to see Tom Brady’s latest hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy, they watched Will Ferrell (attempt to) journey to Norway, Drake from State Farm stand in for the khaki-panted Jake, Flat Matthew McConaughey reach for some 3D Doritos and a much-older “Wayne’s World” duo dance with Cardi B.

While Super Bowl LV did not live up to the hype—the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t score a touchdown as the Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers won handily, 31-9, in their home stadium—companies still brought their A game to the commercial breaks, shelling out an estimated $5.5 million per 30-second spot. The result: A variety of cameos, cuteness—and maybe a little more kookiness than usual after a challenging year.

“I was looking for, what are the positive COVID messages that are coming up?” said Amna Kirmani, Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing in UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “There were a lot of these hope ads—(but) not as many as I would have expected.”

Kirmani joined clinical professors of marketing Judy Frels and Henry C. Boyd III for a little Monday morning quarterbacking with Maryland Today, discussing which ads from the big game scored big, and which fumbled. Here are five that stood out:

Amazon | “Alexa’s Body”

Amazon found a new body for its popular virtual assistant, Alexa: handsome actor Michael B. Jordan, who puts a sexy spin on fact dumps—“There are 16 tablespoons in a cup”—and reveals his six-pack abs while dimming the light with his T-shirt, to the delight of one user, and the dismay of her husband.

Boyd: “My wife knows him. For some reason, he’s the sexiest man alive, not me.”

Frels: “I thought that was hysterical and really tied to the brand, because he’s talking to her like he’s Alexa. That would make me get Alexa.”

Kirmani: “That also brings up another theme I saw this year. Last year we saw a lot of women empowerment ads. This year, it was more about diversity—a lot more Black Americans featured in ads, celebrities and everyday people.”

DoorDash | “The Neighborhood”

Who can’t relate to having food delivered during the pandemic? Actor Daveed Diggs strolls down Sesame Street with Big Bird, Cookie Monster and other Muppets to remind us that “you can get all sorts of things delivered from the neighborhood.”

Boyd: “They had Daveed Diggs from ‘Clipping’ and, of course, ‘Hamilton.’ So that was a nice, established star.”

Frels: “He seems like someone who would be on ‘Sesame Street,’ you know? He’s clever.”

Kirmani: “And think about the broader appeal of ‘Sesame Street.’ So many people grew up on ‘Sesame Street’ and are much older now, versus the younger group who would know the ‘Hamilton’ guy. It’s a mass market for DoorDash—they were trying to blend different age groups, and also this neighborhood feeling.”

Boyd: “Maybe that’s what they were trying to do with “Wayne’s World,” bringing in Cardi B, trying to hit different genres.”

Oatly | Wow No Cow

The CEO of Oatly, a Swedish food company that produces oat-based dairy alternatives, appropriately—but somewhat oddly—stands in an oat field, playing a keyboard and singing a self-written song about the product. The awkwardness may have been a strategy, though: The company is already selling “I Totally Hated that Oatly Commercial” shirts.

Kirmani: “Strange, but it gets you thinking. … I went to the Oatly website after that, and it said, ‘Our ad has succeeded. It brought you here.’”

Frels: “It also kind of speaks to the whole TikTok (phenomenon)—get yourself out there, play your music. I thought that was pretty funny.”

General Motors | No Way Norway

Will Ferrell, quite upset upon learning that Norway sells more electric cars per capita than the U.S., storms off to “crush those lugers” across the globe, recruiting actors Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to join him. (They take a wrong turn or two on the way, though.)

Kirmani: “I thought he was advertising Norway. I thought it was funny, but I thought, ‘Why are they doing that about Norway?’”

Boyd: “He kept trying to underscore, ‘Get your EV.’”

Kirmani: “But if you didn’t know what an EV was …”

Boyd: “You’re in trouble.”

Anheuser-Busch | “Let’s Grab a Beer”

In one of the ads that did play on hope and unity this year, Anheuser-Busch—which scrapped its usual Budweiser ad and instead donated money toward COVID vaccine awareness—showed that once we’re able to grab a beer with friends again, the best part will be enjoying the company.

Frels: “They didn’t do any of their Clydesdales or dogs or any of that stuff. … I thought it was a really sweet ad and really spoke to the times. … Of course, it doesn’t speak to COVID in that people are riding the elevator together and working together.”

Kirmani: “But it does, because I think their point was it’s not the beer, it’s the social get-together. And so the beer is important in terms of connecting to other people, and that’s what we’re missing.”

–By Annie Dankelson, Maryland Today



About the Expert(s)


Amna Kirmani is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include ​morality, persuasion knowledge, ​online communication, ​and branding. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Her papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, and the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising. She is Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research and former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Judy Frels is a Clinical Professor of Marketing and teaches Marketing Strategy and leads Action Learning Projects at the EMBA and MBA levels at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. At Smith, she is the Assistant Dean of Online Programs. Judy rejoined Smith after spending four years as Associate Professor of Marketing at Audencia Nantes School of Management in Nantes, France where she was also the Head of the Marketing Research Axis. Prior to moving to France in 2010, Judy held faculty and staff positions for 11 years at Smith where she was a winner of the Krowe Award for Teaching Excellence and frequent recipient of the Top 15% Award.

Hank Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. Hank received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Duke University (with an emphasis in Consumer Behavior) and his J.D. in Intellectual Property from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the age of 24, he received his MBA in Marketing from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to graduate study, he obtained his A.B. in Chemistry (with an emphasis in Biophysics) from Princeton University. Hank’s opinions have appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Washington Business Journal, Wisconsin State Journal, Sports Illustrated, Crain's Chicago Business, Morning Consult and CNBC. He has participated in live interviews on Maryland Public Television, NBC News (local affiliate WMTV Channel 15 News), CBS News (local affiliate WISC-TV Channel 3 News), WTOP, WMAL, WIBA and Knowledge @ Wharton.

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