What We’ve Learned from 51 Years of Super Bowl Ads

When the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons take the field on February 5, it will mark the 51st year of the Super Bowl — and the 51st year of Super Bowl commercials.

While the Big Game’s spots have evolved considerably over the last five decades, the changes to Super Bowl advertising are indicative of more than changing creative trends—the Super Bowl audience is evolving, too.

Clios.com caught up with NFL CMO and Clio Sports juror Dawn Hudson to learn how advertising’s biggest night has adapted and which constants have endured over 50 years.

What is the significance of advertising being so intertwined with the Super Bowl experience?

The Super Bowl is one of the biggest entertainment events of the year, and the advertising community has gotten smart to this fact. As advertisers have been creating custom commercials designed to entertain and break through the clutter of Super Bowl parties and the Super Bowl, fans have started to notice the entertainment value of the commercials and look for them. It’s a great reinforcement of the entertainment of the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl also attracts the broadest audience, of all walks of life, which also brings the advertiser great opportunity to get visibility and connect with a broad, new fan base.

The gap between male and female Super Bowl viewers is continually shrinking, with women making up nearly half of viewership during the 2016 game. Additionally, the numbers of non-white audiences are also consistently growing. How has the Big Game’s advertising changed over the years to reflect this shift in demographics?

As the Super Bowl viewership base has expanded you have younger and more diverse people watching the Super Bowl, and for marketers that’s an opportunity. Young people care more about a social responsibility point of view from a brand. They don’t want it to be heavy; they still want to be entertained during the Super Bowl, but they also care what a brand stands for.

Over the years, we’ve seen two things from advertisers: They still all set out to entertain, but where 10 or 15 years ago entertainment was defined as slapstick humor — you had to use a dog, a horse, a joke — there’s a growing sophistication. There are numbers of ways to reach this diverse audience, including some things that might more traditionally be “cause marketing,” which, for example, led to the Always 2015 “Like A Girl” spot. When that spot ran in the stadium two years ago, it received huge applause. It shows you that as audiences change, the receptivity to different messages has changed. What I don’t think has changed is people’s desire to be entertained, so whatever message advertisers are giving they’re tending to do it in meaningful, powerful, breakthrough kinds of ways.

How are some of the Super Bowl’s most memorable ads — Coca-Cola’s 1979 “Mean Joe Greene” or Apple’s 1984 “1984,” for example — representative of those moments in time for the Super Bowl and the advertising industry?

“1984” was a decided time. That was about a technology breakthrough in a very riveting way. That would not work today because we have technology breakthroughs every week, so it’s just not startling. But the “Mean Joe Greene” ad could work today because it’s about what is universal and forever. It was not a slapstick ad, it wasn’t even a terribly noisy ad, but it was a powerful insight into the emotion that a little kid gets when his hero walks by and he gets to connect with him. That, to me, is the strength of that ad. It’s a universal emotion, where “1984” was a moment in time.

I think advertisers, even unknowingly, understand what’s going on with the sentiment of the country in down times and recessions. People try to be upbeat, focus on little pleasures and reflect what’s going on in the country and the world at that time.

In the early 2000s, we started to see PSAs, such as anti-smoking and anti-drug ads, focused not on selling products but advocating for causes and dispersing knowledge. What prompted this new kind of Super Bowl spot?

As the stage, visibility and breadth of reach of the Super Bowl have grown broadly over the last 10 or 20 years, the opportunity it represents for any brand or organization, even if they don’t have a lot of money, has grown. Over the last decades targeting specific segments of your user base has become easier and easier, and it’s become harder to get mass reach and visibility. The opportunity for non-profits is not only to get their messages out there, but also to do it in a way that fits the entertainment value of the Super Bowl.

There’s also the challenge brands face to continue to do something new. The fragmentation of the media universe has made it so much more difficult to find a platform that reaches a large audience. Whereas brands might have had five different blockbuster event options in years past, there are fewer and fewer places where you can get that kind of visibility so you’re going to see more brands and organizations flocking to the Super Bowl.

During Super Bowls 49 and 50, the NFL even dedicated ad time to anti-domestic violence group, No More. What kind of response did the league and the brand see from the spot?

We really did custom work that was meaningful, that was definitely not light, but we did it in an artistic way that broke through the Super Bowl. The ad we ran in 2015 about the call—which was a real story—really resonated with people. It was an issue that was being talked about a lot at that time. It was poignant and serious, but it was done in a very grabbing way, and people respected that. With the changing demographics and the growing importance of receptivity to different kinds of ads, you’re going to continue to see a broader portfolio of advertising and types of advertisers at the Super Bowl.

Last year, the NFL also aired its own ad during the Big Game (which made the Shortlist during our 2016 Creative Bowl) to celebrate its 50th anniversary. What about today’s Super Bowl audience and marketing landscape made that viral ad possible?

The idea of creating babies is universal. It’s very much a male and female message, and with a dual audience it was very much appropriate. Also, the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of family and friends viewership. One of the strengths of the Super Bowl—one of the strengths of football, period—is that in a crazy life where people don’t even have time to eat dinner together, where messages are quick and sent in small, digestible pieces of information, what football represents is the antidote to that freneticism. It is an ultimate connection, so I think for us, “Super Bowl Babies” celebrates the connection and family nature of football, and it was right for us to do it at this time.

Can you give us any hints on what to expect in this year’s Super Bowl ads?

The only hint I would give you is: a drive toward innovation. We did an informative series this year called “The Future of Football” that talked about changes we’re making to the game through technology, surface changes and medical treatment changes, and we’re putting them all under the heading of the future of football. So you might see that carried through in a small way during the Super Bowl. But that’s by no means everything we’re doing.

The third annual Super Clio will be awarded to the Big Game’s best ad on February 6. For more information, visit clios.com/superclio.