NEW YORK — As Super Bowl ads go, so goes America.
The A-list advertisers who aired commercial spots during Sunday's big game steered clear of controversy while trying to appeal to weary consumers with iconic American images and family-centered topics. Those safe themes were evident in many of the ads, from Toyota's Highlander ad featuring singing Muppets to Chrysler's two-minute Bob Dylan spot focused on American engineering, and Bud Light's ad which showed Arnold Schwarzenegger playing "tiny tennis."
Super Bowl ads can be a bellwether for the economy because they show which companies are willing to spend $4 million on a 30-second spot. In 2000, for instance, at the height of the dot com boom, 13 technology startups advertised in the Super Bowl. By 2001, after the bubble had burst, there were just three.
This year, fewer websites and software companies aired ads compared to the past four years and more ads appeared from packaged food and luxury auto makers, according to research firm Ace Metrix, which measures the effectiveness of ads. Absent were edgier companies willing to take risks, such as E(asterisk)Trade and Groupon, while more staid brands like Cheerios and Heinz joined the mix.
Super Bowl ads are also an indicator of consumer attitudes. Advertisers used nostalgia and family-heavy themes on Sunday to play to viewers who are fatigued from a depressed economy and tepid job market.
"We've had an extended recession and psychologically we're not back into a mode where people are comfortable with heavy consumption," says Ray Taylor, marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business, Villanova, Penn. "A lot of consumers have been hit financially for an extended period of time. As a result, returning to things people are familiar with or appealing to their emotions will tend to work. It's a particularly good time to be nostalgic with consumers."
The timing helps explain why Budweiser's reassuring "Puppy Love" ad won the USA Today Ad Meter, which gauges the popularity of Super Bowl Ads. The spot depicts a budding friendship between a yellow Labrador puppy and a Clydesdale.
Microsoft's "Empowering" tear-jerker ad was dubbed most effective by Ace Metrix. The spot, narrated by former professional football player Steve Gleason, shows how technology can help change people's lives. Gleason, who is living with ALS —a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement, uses a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet running eye-tracking technology to speak.
Advertisers across the spectrum toned down their messages. Godaddy.com, a 10-year-old Web hosting company made its name producing racy Super Bowl ads that made a splash — positive and negative. But this year they went relatively tame, depicting a woman who quit her job during the ad so she could start up a small business.
"A lot of years, the ads reflect the national mood, and now we're in this ambivalent state," says David Berkowitz, chief marketing officer at digital ad agency MRY. "There's still a lot of that American pride and self-confidence, but we're realizing that we aren't in that dominant position. The whole 'We're No. 1' attitude feels less assured than it has in the past. So I think that's led to a lot of these safe choices."
Even so, this year's game wasn't without its luxury advertisers. Chrysler's high end Ghibili Maserati, which goes for $67,000, made a splash with a darkly lyrical 90-second spot featuring narration about defeating "giants" by "Beasts of the Southern Wild" actress Quvenzhane Wallis. And Jaguar advertised its $70,000 F-Type car with a big-budget ad featuring a car chase.
Amid the muted tones of other ads, the emphasis on the "one percent" in those spots struck some viewers as slightly off key.
"They wanted to reinforce that these are ultimate dream automobiles that anyone would want to own, but I still think there's better venues to do that," says Villanova's Taylor. "I thought those ads were misplaced in the Super Bowl, but especially this Super Bowl."