Unfortunately, as a Cleveland Browns fan, I’m usually in the Super Bowl for the ads. This year was an exception—what a game!

Normally, though, I’m not alone. A recent survey shows that 24% of Super Bowl viewers think the commercials are the most important part of the game. That, and the fact that the Super Bowl regularly draws more than 100 million viewers, helps justify the price tag of these commercials—as much as $5.5 million for a 30-second spot!—for most advertisers.

Although some advertisers are “riding the bench” this year, not all advertisers stayed away, and their ads did not disappoint. From kickoff through overtime, there were over 100 commercials and I’d say I enjoyed at least 85% of them and, like everyone, had my personal favorites.

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Right to left: Creative Director Mike Lawrence; Associate Director of Optimization Jamie Gyerman; Lead Content Strategist Lukas Treu; Senior Account Executive Jen Brawner.

Some of us from the AKHIA team attended the Northeast Ohio American Marketing Association Big Game Ad Review on Monday (pictured, with the cool signs). We put on our marketing caps—or helmets, I should say. I saw several themes that carried across advertisers: subtlety, extending the conversation beyond the :30 spot, addressing social issues and, of course, humor.

Subtlety
Several ads were incredibly subtle, so subtle that the advertiser was barely even mentioned and the content of the ad being loosely tied to the company’s product or service, or not being about them at all.

  • Inspiration Drops: A father walks with his daughter while a John Legend song plays in the background. It starts to rain, and color and art appear all around as the lyrics state, “something magical is about to start.” Is this a commercial for art supplies? No, it’s for Life Water. It closes ties by stating that art makes life #moreinspired. Although I may not believe Life Water will bring beauty to my life, it was a beautiful concept and an enjoyable ad to watch.
  • Yearbooks: From one yearbook to the next—Tina Fey to Missy Elliott and Stan Lee to Jimmy Kimmel—we see celebrities’ yearbook photos come alive as they share advice. Some infuse humor, some are more serious. The last celebrity featured, actress Viola Davis, lets us know that, “all dreams are within reach, all you have to do is keep moving towards them,” and the ad closes with a voiceover by Kevin Arnold, I mean Fred Savage, saying “here’s to chasing dreams and the amazing places we lead.” Didn’t see that coming!
  • We Accept: As tight shots of people of different ethnicities, male and female, young and old, fill the screen, the words “We believe no matter who you are where you’re from who you love or who you worship we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept. #weaccept” are displayed. Only at the end, when the screen turns their signature pink and a small airbnb logo appears, do you know that this is an Airbnb commercial. Even then, this ad was not about the share economy, rather it focused on their Community Commitment.
  • Calling JohnMalkovich.com: Can you be too subtle, though? In this (pretty funny) commercial, John Malkovich is on the phone with the person who owns the domain JohnMalkovich.com and he is pleading with him to turn the domain over so he can use it for his new fashion company. The point, of course, is that you need to reserve a domain before someone else does. At this point, I assumed it was a GoDaddy ad. It wasn’t until I saw an article on Twitter later that said that John Malkovich improvised all his lines for his…Squarespace ad…that I realized who the ad was for. Maybe I just looked away from the TV too soon although in a space that’s traditionally been owned by another company, less subtlety may have been useful.

Extending the conversation
$5.5 million dollars is a significant amount of money. Period. Even more significant when it’s for 30 seconds. So, finding a way to extend the life of that spot beyond the ad is crucial. Several ads included hashtags, encouraging further engagement on social channels. A couple other more unique examples are as follows:

  • The Journey Begins: A mother and daughter embark on, presumably, their journey to the United States. The daughter picks up scraps along the way, leading you to believe that she’s saving them for a particular reason. Before we find out what the reason is, or where they are headed, the commercial ends and we’re invited to see the conclusion at journey84.com. Was the ad enticing enough for people to go visit that website? Considering the website crashed within one minute of the ad airing, it’s safe to say the answer is yes.
  • #UnlimitedMoves with Justin Bieber: A tuxedo-clad Justin Bieber, or self-proclaimed Celebration Expert, takes us through how sports moments have been celebrated over time. From the high five, to a spiked ball, to the shimmy all the way to TO’s ‘unlimited moves’ which segues us into the point of this commercial: how T-Mobile is offering an unlimited data plan. Viewers are encouraged to share their #UnlimitedMoves on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—with the Biebs promising to share his faves; he hasn’t just yet although I’m sure his contract requires it! So, he surely will.

Addressing social issues
Several commercials touched on social issues that are currently being discussed on a daily basis, with these advertisers choosing to promote their values over their products. We already talked about Airbnb’s ad, a very clear example of this. Here are a couple others:

  • It’s Beautiful: In this simple yet beautiful ad, America the Beautiful plays in the background in a variety of languages and people from every part of the melting pot are featured, sometimes with a Coke product but not always. The only words displayed come at the very end: Together is beautiful. A clear but very subtle nod to how our country thrives on diversity.
  • Born the Hard Way: This ad shows one man’s challenging journey from Germany to the US because he dreams of brewing beer. Once he gets to St. Louis, he is greeted by Eberhard Anheuser and we learn his name is Adolphus Busch—aha, Anheuser Busch! Although this commercial technically just focuses on the company’s co-founder, the subtext of the impact immigrants have had on our country is certainly there.
  • Daughter: As a girl lines up at the start of a go kart race against mostly boys, her father wonders what he is supposed to tell his daughter—that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma, that despite her education, drive, skills and intelligence, she will be automatically be valued as less than every man she meets. When his daughter ends up winning the race, he has hope that he may be able to tell her something different—and the ad closes with a note saying that Audi is committed to equal pay for equal work. Another issue clearly very much on the forefront of today’s conversations.

Humor
Year in and year out, there are hilarious Super Bowl commercials. This year, clearly no exception. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • #AvoSecrets: The scene starts off with a meeting of a secret society that seems to have a problem keeping secrets. While they have kept things like there only being 49 shades of gray and Deflategate a secret, the word is out about avocadoes from Mexico being good fat. Smart and witty!
  • Big Game Commercial with Cam Newton & Miranda Kerr: When a car pulls up to a youth football game, one of the dads points it out, saying, “Look at that Buick” and the other dad says, “if that’s a Buick, then my son’s Cam Newton.” In that instant, his son turns into Cam Newton, towering above the other kids and throwing a rocket that shoots the receiver about 10 yards across the field. When Cam comments on the Buick to the coach who says, “If that’s a Buick, I’m a supermodel” at which point he turns into Miranda Kerr and the ref runs into the water station. Laughed out loud throughout this one!
  • Hero’s Journey: In scene after scene, we see actress Melissa McCarthy helping cause after cause, only to end up being injured in some comical way. Does this sound like a car commercial? It is, and it was tied in nicely with this line:“It’s hard to be an eco-warrior, but it’s easy to drive like one.” Hilarious, with a payoff that was a natural progression.
  • Bai Bai Bai: The commercial begins with Christopher Walken. Already, we are off to a good start. When he starts doing a dramatic reading of the lyrics of Bye, Bye, Bye by N’Sync, it gets funnier. And when the shot pans to Justin Timberlake who is sitting next to him on the couch, and doesn’t say anything, it gets even funnier. Fun fact: at the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the American Marketing Association’s annual Big Game Ad Review, this commercial was chosen as the winner. Maybe we can get Justin Timberlake to come to next year’s event? A girl can dream.

Regardless of whether a company chose to subtlety promote or use humor or address social issues, or what the call to action was, this year’s commercials were truly special. What was your favorite?

Jen Brawner is senior account executive at AKHIA.