July 26, 2016

What Super Bowl Ads Teach Us About Storytelling

If you’re like I am, then you probably watch the Super Bowl primarily for the ads and the onion dip (no chicken wings for this vegetarian). And last night’s game did not disappoint on either front. I’m including some quick commentary on the best and worst ads. Ironically, almost all of these ads had one thing in common: storytelling. But while some used this technique brilliantly, others, well, fumbled. Here are my two faves:

  1. Google: This ad is embedded above and the concept is breathtakingly simple. No screaming chickens or houses made of beer cans. In fact, you actually have to read to get the point of the ad (that Google search is there for you at any stage of life). I love how they told a Parisian love story through keyword searches. It puts the product at the heart of the ad without getting too cheesy or complicated. It also shows that storytelling, not bells and whistles, is the way to go.
  2. Audi: Here the story centers on a series of short scenes involving the green police. Then the payoff comes when an Audi driver gets singled out and commended for using clean diesel. It’s a clever way to show, not tell, that this Audi is eco-friendly. And anyone who’s been pulled over by a police officer can appreciate the last scene of this ad!

And the two ads that let me down:

  1. Cars.com: The set-up for this ad is actually pretty good. I was intrigued by this precocious little kid who’s putting out fires and saving baby tigers. Someone at the party I attended said she thought it was an ad for a funny new sitcom. Then comes this awkward transition where they talk about how even smart people need help picking out the right car. And … they lost me and everyone else in the room (seriously, I heard a collective groan). Somehow they set us up for something incredibly interesting and then let us down. Maybe because the introductory scenes had nothing to do with the product.
  2. Doritos: This ad gets creativity points for filling a casket with Doritos as a fan’s “dying wish,” but the concept is totally tacky. The idea that someone would stage their own funeral so they could get out of work and eat Doritos paints fans as irresponsible and immature! I’m guessing most people who’ve sat through a close family member’s funeral would agree with me. I did like this Doritos ad about a trio of Dorito eaters at the gym, though.

If case you missed them, you can watch all of last night’s Super Bowl ads on Hulu’s AdZone. Which ads did you love (or hate)? What does this say about copywriting and/or storytelling?


  1. Jennifer Margulis says:

    I didn't watch the super bowl because we don't have a TV and though I liked football growing up I find it sort of boring now. The ads are interesting to analyze, though, aren't they? I wish we could spend those billions of dollars reducing waste and stopping greenhouse gas admissions… But that's just me…

  2. The ads and roasted red pepper hummus – I'm a vegetarian, too. 🙂

    The Google ad was brilliant. I remembered exactly who the advertiser was and they made their point to the letter.

    In general, I thought the ads framed men as raving idiots and women as ogres. I LOVED the VW ad – everyone got it. It was instantly recognizable by nearly every generation.

  3. Peggy Bourjaily says:

    I didn't watch the superbowl either!! However, I did see the google ad on the Today show and thought it was lovely. Like any good story, there was a truth to it and that gets the audience every time!! No gimmicks necessary.

  4. marthaandme says:

    I liked the Google ad too. I also thought the one about casual Friday with everyone in their underwear was hysterical – that was for a job site I think.

  5. Frugal Kiwi says:

    The Google spot is a testament to great advertising. Simple, elegant, memorable and incredibly cheap to make-if not show…

  6. MyKidsEatSquid says:

    I don't even watch the game anymore (too many disappointments with the Broncos as a child), but I do like to follow the ads. I watched them on YouTube after the game–loved the Betty White one, haven't seen the google one yet, so I'll have to check that out.

  7. I didn't watch the Superbowl, either (although it was blasting in the other room where my husband and sons watched). But I did just watch this Google ad – and loved it. Just brilliant~!

  8. Susan Johnston says:

    To all those who didn't watch the Super Bowl, I totally understand! If it were up to me, I would have watched a movie instead. But Mr. Muse (the boyfriend) invited me to his parents' Super Bowl party and I went along for the food and company. He'll be tagging along to Grandma's 90th Birthday party, so I thought I should return the favor. And hey, I got a blog post out of it!

  9. Nancy Monson says:

    I lucked out and apparently saw the best commercial they aired–the Snickers commercial where a regular guy was playing football with friends and was so sluggish he turned into Betty White. Then he ate a Snickers and turned back into a young man. It was very clever.

    I agree about the Doritos ad…it was poor taste.

  10. ruth pennebaker says:

    I like the Saints, so my husband and I actually watched the game. I was infuriated by the continued, tedious sexism of the beer ads, though. What's the message? Love beer, ergo disrespect women?

  11. Alexandra Grabbe says:

    Another one here who did not watch the game. However, I did watch the Google ad you posted and thank you for doing so. I agree that it is brilliant. However, as an American woman who went looking for love in France, married a Frenchman, had three children there, watched Truffaut, ate truffles, etc. etc., I think a warning is needed as the whole experience, romantic as it may seem, did not turn out to be such a good idea ….

  12. Hey Susan,

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog post. Your emails (RSS feeds) are fast become one of the only 5 or 6 I read.

    As for the lesson on "show, don't tell", thanks for the reminder. And thanks for the great examples to illustrate the point.

    I'm a Aussie (I live in Australia) so the super bowl holds no interest for me.

    About the ads: I love the way google advertised themselves as being a part of your life, not just a product.

    As for the Audi ad: great way to dramatize the point.

    I didn't bother watching the other ads you mentioned.

    Thanks again.

  13. Stacy S. Jensen says:

    I watched the Super Bowl this year. Not a football fan, but saw almost every play.
    I really loved the Google ad. It was my favorite.
    As a woman, I found the majority of ads weren't interested in getting my cash. They weren't aimed at attracting me to their products at all.

  14. wishful nals says:

    i love the commercials! let's be honest, that's why i watch 🙂 i really liked the audi commercial. there were none that wowed me though! there's always next year 🙂 xo!

  15. Alisa Bowman says:

    Interesting. I missed the Super Bowl and the ads (I still don't know who won or even who played against the Saints), but I'm totally with you here. Good–great ad. Too bad these other companies spent millions on ads that did not deliver. What a waste of money. Story telling is one of the most effective ways to get people to emote, but it works best when the story is real (google) and not contrived (Doritos).

  16. Just a call-out to the VCU Adcenter, my advertising alma mater. The copywriter that created the Google ad is also a VCU grad!

    As a copywriter before I became a writer, I think learning to write ads teaches you a lot about storytelling. When you've got a three-word headline or 30-second ad to convey a couple pages of client wishes, you learn to write tight! There's no better training!

  17. Susan Johnston says:

    @Alexandra: Good point! The French thing adds a nice cosmopolitan twist, but I would still like the ad even if it were an American guy impressing an American girl. I do have several friends who've married or dated men they met while abroad and it's very tough!

    @Chantal: Rock on! I had no idea about the VCU connection. Very cool.

  18. Tammi Kibler says:

    I cannot remember when I last saw a beer commercial. I guess that demonstrates the success of modern market segmentation of cable television commercials. But to me it looks less and less like the beer industry promotes sporting events and more like the opposite.

  19. Katherine Lewis says:

    I actually didn't like the Audi commercial, but maybe I was expecting something better because of the buildup. I liked the Dove ad showing the progression of a man's life. Also, even though it was cringe worthy, I couldn't help giggling at the one about man's last stand. Some big truck. 🙂