Super Bowl Sunday is for two types of people: the ones there for football and the ones there for the halftime show and commercials. Residing in the latter camp, I thought we could take a look at some of the more compelling Super Bowl commercials of the night, from T-Mobile’s goofy ode to Grease to PopCorners trip down television’s memory lane.
One common denominator among the three commercials we’ll dissect is the use of celebrity to appeal to the masses. Increasing viewership with celebrity appearances is nothing new; it's tried and true.
Customers get a kick out of seeing their favorite entertainers snacking on the same food they do or using the same services. For some it provides that humanizing, “they’re just like us” moment. For others, it’s just plain fun and perhaps nostalgic, but we’ll get more into that below.
1. T-Mobile delivers fast internet access and nostalgia
With 52M YouTube views and a slew of positive comments to boot, T-Mobile’s gameday commercial “New Year. New Neighbor.” seems to have hit the mark.
Starring Grease’s very own John Travolta, the commercial rewrites the iconic hit “Summer Nights” to showcase the inconvenience of installing home internet, that is, until Travolta’s neighbors (Donald Faison and Zach Braff) pop in to tell him about T-Mobile’s easy, one-cord setup.
Why, of all commercials, did this one amass so many viewers? To put it simply: nostalgia.
Seeing Danny Zuko semi-resurrected and singing about home internet is the quirky encore we didn't know we needed. We are swept back to our young years, honeyed nostalgia lighting up our brains.
T-Mobile's Super Bowl commercial is not revolutionary by any means, but its lighthearted, nostalgic quality makes for a rather delightful watch.
2. Pepsi stays neutral
Pepsi does something special in its Super Bowl commercial: it doesn’t brag.
Brands often shine a heavenly light on their products, claiming they are the best, better than the best, in fact.
Take this year’s strange but amusing Doritos commercial. The mere shape of a Dorito provides a kind of divine inspiration to singer Jack Harlow. It makes Doritos out to be a tasty deity.
In Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace’s marketing book Storynomics, they speak of marketing with humility and avoiding such bragging.
“A sophisticated client knows that there’s good and bad in everything. If you present nothing but good, he knows you’re hiding the bad. He considers that lying and decides you cannot be trusted.” (Storynomics, Page 130)
In “Great Acting or Great Taste?” Pepsi never makes any grand claims about its soda. Instead, Ben Stiller gives us a free acting class, from feigning anger and pain to selling the feeling of being freezing out in the snow. (Plus, a hint of nostalgia comes through in the Zoolander bit.)
A Pepsi can doesn’t even appear on the screen until the end of the commercial, which works because Stiller’s presence is enough to hook people and reel them to that point.
Once the Pepsi’s in Stiller’s hands, you’d expect him to sing its praises, but after his first sip, he says, “Wow, that’s like, really good…or was I just acting?” complete with a glance toward a different camera. That camera switch drives home the "movie magic" feel and the awareness of the fabrication that comes along with it. It's almost like Pepsi wants us to think Stiller is acting, perhaps poking fun at how overacted commercials are, brands positioning their products as untouchable.
Stiller then says the "only way to know is to try it for yourself.” Pepsi leaves the decision in the audience’s hands.
The surprising neutrality toward its own brand is bizarre and refreshing. It doesn’t even “present nothing but good,” it presents…nothing. And somehow it works.
3. PopCorners asks customers to “break into something good”
If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, you’ve surely heard of it. The wildly popular series captivated audiences for five seasons. In the last of the Super Bowl commercials we'll dig into, PopCorners brought avid fans’ fantasies to life by inviting Bryan Cranston (Walt), Aaron Paul (Jesse), and Raymond Cruz (Tuco) back to the screen to reprise their roles in the name of flavor and nostalgia.
Nostalgia and storytelling are two golden keys to consumers’ hearts, and PopCorners clearly knows it. The commercial takes those old, beloved characters and tells a new story. (Mind you, Breaking Bad ended a decade ago, so this revival is all the more thrilling.)
In this story, Walt is the mastermind behind PopCorners, Jesse calling him an artist after a cool, low angle shot of him inspecting the PopCorners.
Walt then lists the selling points of PopCorners, noting that they're "air-popped, not fried" in his deadpan way. It doesn't come across as bragging, rather it feels like Walt's stating a fact, which works in PopCorners' favor.
Some fans commented on the likeness to the actual show, pleased with the way the commercial accurately depicts the dynamics of the characters, honoring its critically acclaimed source.
The commercial closes with Tuco demanding the pair make a seventh flavor, PopCorners' genius way of announcing its new addition.
The secret recipe for the success of 2023's Super Bowl commercials is clear: a dash of nostalgia, a pinch of storytelling, and a whole lot of celebrity.