Super Bowl Ads Play It Safe

Former ad exec James Othmer on why Abe Vigoda and Betty White were the stars of last night—and how companies are being cautious post-Tiger. Plus, WATCH the best ads.

Former ad exec James Othmer on why Abe Vigoda and Betty White were the stars of last night—and how companies are being cautious post-Tiger. Plus, WATCH the best ads below.

If the Super Bowl ads of a given year are a reflection of our culture, if not the national zeitgeist, then welcome to the Age of Vigoda. In the Age of Vigoda, as evidenced by last night’s game, Super Bowl branding built around the high-energy star power of emerging mega-celebrities has been supplanted by ads featuring the likes of 83-year-old Don Rickles (Teleflora), 88-year-old Betty White (Snickers) and the 88-year-old Abe Vigoda (Snickers), whose most recent brush with fame occurred when People magazine erroneously reported him dead in 1982.

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After decades of Super Bowl ads featuring present-tense stars near the height of their fame—from Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett (Noxema) to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears (Pepsi)—why the sudden rush on fading and octogenarian celebs? A case can be made that nostalgia plays well with an aging boomer population, supported by the fact that the White/Vigoda Snickers spot took the top position in USA Today’s Super Bowl Ad Meter consumer poll. Another reason for the lack of a 21st-Century pop culture star presence can be attributed to the fact that Pepsi, the brand associated with so many of the most famous celebrity and youth-focused Super Bowl ads, sat out last night’s game for the first time in 23 years, choosing instead to spend more than $20 million on its caused-based, celeb-free, social media campaign, Pepsi Refresh.

In the Age of Vigoda it’s much better to play it safe—as brands did last night with ads featuring Kiss, Charles Barkley, Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo reprising their roles in National Lampoon Vacation (were the 1980s really that special?)—than risk squandering years of equity and consumer trust, not to mention tens of millions of dollars on a present-tense star who can be wearing a green Master’s Jacket one minute and be licking his wounds in sex addiction counseling the next.

Celebrity spokesperson meltdowns are nothing new. It’s always been risky for brands to go all in with an endorser at the top of the Q-ratings, but now advertisers seem more reluctant to go there then ever. Perhaps the poor economy allows brands less room for failure. Or perhaps the 24/7 TMZ news cycle, combined with the transparency and ubiquity of Internet gadgets has made celebrities more susceptible than ever to humiliating exposure. Of course, because of this, the only thing we enjoy more than the ascent of a celebrity is their plummet to mug shot, scandal-sheet hell.

So rather than seeing the stars of the moment performing in our ads and on our halftime shows, we are entertained by those who have won our trust over the span of decades. Tiger Woods and John Edwards have begotten Abe Vigoda and Betty White. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake have led to Tom Petty and The Who. Apparently Roger Daltry is less of a risk to have a wardrobe malfunction than Janet Jackson, but lord help us all if he does.

The exceptions, of course, are the lesser brands that use the Super Bowl as a platform to court controversy and shock their way into a larger cultural discussion. Focus on the Family did this brilliantly this year with its now famous Tim Tebow pro-life/anti-abortion ad. The ad was a snooze, coming right after the Snickers ad and using the same visual gag originated years ago with Reebok’s Terry Tate, Office Linebacker classic, but it didn’t matter. The Focus on the Family ad was the most talked about ad for two weeks leading up to the game. Similarly the gay dating service got millions in free PR when CBS rejected its ad, prompting claims and counterclaims of discrimination and homophobia. One gets the sense that, with network TV struggling as a viable platform for advertisers the other 364 days of the year, the Super Bowl with its 100 million viewers may become a magnet for more and more intentionally controversial one-hit wonders.

Last night several brands avoided the possibility of celebrity endorser blowup by eliminating humans altogether: Kia Motors cast its quirkily appealing commercial for the Sonesta with a Sock Monkey puppet, Muno from Yo Gabba Gabba and the Mr. X toy; one of Coke’s uncharacteristically flat spots starred the animated cast of The Simpsons; and from Google, the brand that could have spent more production dollars than anyone, came the most simple, charming, and effective ad of the night, Paris Love Story, which brilliantly managed to distill the powerful human arc of a long-term romance and the utility of its search function down to a series of typewritten words in the brand’s iconic box. I never thought of Google as anything other than a soulless conglomerate bent on ruling the world, but that ad made me blink.

Toyota also went the all-type route with its buzzkilling mea culpa ads about the circumstances surrounding its crippling recall and repair effort. This was quite a contrast to the joy and energy of Kia’s Sock Monkey Crew, as well as a winning ad for the Hyundai Sonato that defied the trend toward nostalgia and pseudo celebrities. Hyundai hired a genuine celebrity of the moment, Brett Favre, and sent him to a place where today’s scandals can never go: the future.

James P. Othmer is the author of ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet and the novel The Futurist .