Sign of the times: Super Bowl ads safer and staid

The A-list advertisers who aired commercial spots during Sunday’s Super Bowl game steered clear of controversy while trying to appeal to weary consumers with iconic American images and family-centered topics.
Published: February 3, 2014
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As Super Bowl ads go, so goes America.

The A-list advertisers who aired commercial spots during Sunday’s big game steered clear of controversy while trying to appeal to weary consumers with iconic American images and family-centered topics. Those safe themes were evident in many of the ads, from Toyota’s Highlander ad featuring singing Muppets to Chrysler’s two-minute Bob Dylan spot focused on American engineering, and Bud Light’s ad which showed Arnold Schwarzenegger playing “tiny tennis.”

Super Bowl ads can be a bellwether for the economy because they show which companies are willing to spend $4 million on a 30-second spot. In 2000, for instance, at the height of the dot com boom, 13 technology startups advertised in the Super Bowl. By 2001, after the bubble had burst, there were just three.

This year, fewer websites and software companies aired ads compared to the past four years, and more ads appeared from packaged food and luxury auto makers, according to research firm Ace Metrix, which measures the effectiveness of ads. Absent were edgier companies willing to take risks, such as E-Trade and Groupon, while more staid brands like Cheerios and Heinz joined the mix.

Super Bowl ads are also an indicator of consumer attitudes. Advertisers used nostalgia and family-heavy themes on Sunday to play to viewers who are fatigued from a depressed economy and tepid job market.

“We’ve had an extended recession and psychologically we’re not back into a mode where people are comfortable with heavy consumption,” says Ray Taylor, marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business, Villanova, Penn. “A lot of consumers have been hit financially for an extended period of time. As a result, returning to things people are familiar with or appealing to their emotions will tend to work. It’s a particularly good time to be nostalgic with consumers.”

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