Celebrities, humor and a huge dose of nostalgia will dominate Sunday’s Super Bowl ads

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Big brands that have in some cases sat out for years the TV advertising frenzy around the biggest US sporting event — the Super Bowl — are returning Sunday and spending big amid record ad prices. It’s been a bumpy couple years marked by pandemic-era restraint and political polarization, but the American football championship offers an increasingly unequalled viewership too big to pass up.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

Companies such as General Motors, PepsiCo and Meta Plataforms are betting millions of dollars that nostalgic Super Bowl ads, many featuring 1980s and 1990s celebrities or music, will connect with viewers during Sunday’s big game.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Salma Hayek and Mike Myers will pitch new electric vehicles for BMW and GM. Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Rodman and William Shatner want you to work out at Planet Fitness. And others such as Kevin Hart and Andy Richter will promote Sam’s Club and Avocados from Mexico.

With the average 30-second Super Bowl ad costing about $6.5 million, advertising executives and experts say such ads are attempting to reach key age demographics – millennials, Gen X and even some Baby Boomers – while providing a little oasis from the coronavirus pandemic and politics.

“Nostalgia is a really good way to tap into positive memories that large portions of viewing audience will have,” said Mitchell Olsen, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “It’s an opportunity to attach your brands with some of those positive associations.”

The ads are riding a wave of reboots from Hollywood studios and streaming services ranging from “The Karate Kid” and “Top Gun” to “Saved by the Bell” and “The Mighty Ducks” — all shows or movies from the ’80s and ’90s.

Dust off your cassette tapes

There’s also the music, which may have some viewers thinking about dusting off their cassette tapes.

Songs from artists such as Salt-N-Pepa (“Push It”), Bonnie Taylor (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) and Simple Minds (“Don’t You (Forget About Me)”), among others, will have viewers who pine for the ’80s humming. Even this year’s halftime show, which stars rap icons Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige and Eminem, support this vibe.

“The ’80s and ’90s are having a massive resurgence now,” said GM Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl. “There’s a huge familiarity.”

GM, for a second-consecutive year, rebooted a 1990s film for a Super Bowl ad. Following 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands” for Cadillac last year, the automaker this year has actor Mike Myers reclaiming his role as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers spy comedy trilogy, which began in 1997.

But with companies spending millions of dollars on such ads, it’s a gamble that they may miss connecting with younger viewers, according to experts. It’s why advertisers such as GM are attempting to drum-up hype on social platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter ahead of the commercials making their national broadcast debuts.

“There’s no question that there is a risk that people might not know what you’re talking about, but, at the same time, the younger generation has shown an openness to watch the things that older people watched,” said Jed Meyer, senior vice president at Kantar, a data analytics and brand consulting firm.

Kantar reported last year’s Super Bowl generated $434.5 million of in-game ad revenue, higher than the World Series and NBA finals and second only to the Olympic Games, which take place over multiple weeks.

With spots this year selling at an average of $6.5 million per 30 seconds of airtime, up from $5.5 million in 2021, revenue for this year’s Super Bowl is projected to surpass last year’s total.

However, advertisers are expected to get more bang for their buck. The 2022 Super Bowl between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams is anticipated to reach a record audience following years of declining viewership.

Reliving glory days

Super Bowl ads from Meta (the former Facebook) and Frito-Lay don’t feature major stars from the ’80s or ’90s but the entire premise of both spots is reliving glory days — just in largely different ways.

Meta’s ad follows the journey of an animatronic dog that’s put out to pasture after a Chuck E. Cheese-type restaurant shuts down. He’s down on his luck and almost destroyed until someone saves him to be a prop at a store what sells Meta’s Quest 2 virtual reality headset. In the VR world, or metaverse, he reunites with his other animatronic bandmates at a virtual version of the restaurant.

The Meta ad – called “Old Friends, New Fun” – is largely silent aside from Simple Minds’ 1985 quintessential new wave pop song “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Frito-Lay’s “Golden Memories” ad features actors Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd talking about their glory days over a bag of Lay’s chips, ahead of Rogan getting married. They comedically reminisce about their first road trip in 1997 to Rogan recently meeting his ghostly corpse bride.

The ad features Shania Twain’s 1997 hit “You’re Still the One.”

‘People are ready to be happy’

Whether the Super Bowl ads are nostalgic or not, many of the commercials that have been pre-released are meant to be funny.

“After several years in kind of a Covid, downtrodden mood for everything, people are ready to be happy now,” said Robert Kolt, a Michigan State University advertising professor and Super Bowl ad guru. “People want to feel good.”

The use of comedy as well as a host of celebrities is a safe bet for advertisers looking to connect with audiences, according to the expert. There’s an “Oversharing Mom” for used vehicle sales site Carvana; Amazon‘s Alexa is reading the minds of celebrity couple Scarlett Johansson and Colin Jost, and Kevin Hart is acting like he’s a VIP in a Sam’s Club, among others.

“It’s humor and relatability,” said Ryan Keeton, a co-founder and chief brand officer of Carvana.

There also will be plenty of animals during this year’s game. They include a robot dog for Kia and animals — led by a bird voiced by Megan Thee Stallion — singing Salt-N-Pepa’s 1987 hit “Push It” after eating Flamin’ Hot Doritos and Cheetos.

Budweiser, a stalwart of Super Bowl advertising, also will feature the journey of an injured Clydesdale horse to recovery with the assistance of a friendly dog.

“Whatever makes people feel some kind of emotion, it’s going to be a good ad. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we like the animals so much. Who doesn’t love a dog?” Kolt said. “Humor is just what people need right now and I think advertisers will give it to us this year.”

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