This year’s Super Bowl ads projected messages of humor, hope and unity.

Many brands opted for a lighthearted tone for their Super Bowl LV ads in an effort to offset the weight of the last year, enlisting the help of popular comedians and striking a chord of mindful optimism.

One of the most interesting takeaways from this year’s Super Bowl ads, however, was not what was said—but who was saying it. The lineup of this year’s advertisers was equally as noteworthy as the content, signaling a changing of the guard and offering an apt reflection of the current cultural climate.

Several heavy hitters were notably missing from the roster, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hyundai and Budweiser, whose advertisements have topped many of the “best of” Super Bowl ad lists. “For the first time in 37 years, Budweiser isn’t airing a commercial during the Super Bowl,” the brand revealed. “Instead, we’re redirecting our advertising dollars to support COVID-19 vaccines awareness and education.”

A swathe of newcomers attempted to fill the legacy advertisers’ shoes. Many first-time Super Bowl advertisers included career and financial management companies, offering support to those navigating a stalled job market and sluggish economy.

“Human beings are fatigued by the onslaught of what’s happened to us over the last 12 months, and there have been very few united-eyeball moments where we’ve been provided any relief from that,” said Eliza Yvette Esquivel, North America chief strategy officer at branding agency FutureBrand. Conscious of this collective cultural moment, brands and advertisers made the most of their time to draw attention to vital services, while offering emotional release and messages of support.

Focus on finance

This year’s spots reflected the nation’s collective desire for financial stability amidst stalling job markets and unsteady economies. Following a year marked by economic stagnancy and a departure from traditional working habits, ads from career platforms and financial companies took center stage.

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SquareSpace’s “5 to 9” is an ode to side hustles and passion projects that celebrates micropreneurs. Freelance platform Fiverr joined the fray with its first Super Bowl ad, “Opportunity Knocks,” aiming to support, empower and lift up small businesses and independent workers. Another Super Bowl newcomer, employment website Indeed aired a spot that “highlights the emotional journey of job seekers at a time when many people are facing economic distress,” the company said.

Investment app Robinhood aired its first Super Bowl spot with the message that anyone can be an investor—“you don’t need to become an investor,” the ad claims, “you were born one.” Guaranteed Rate also made its Super Bowl debut as mortgage rates hit historic lows and people are spending more time at home. And E-trade returned to the Super Bowl after a three-year hiatus, coming out of 2020 with high levels of new-to-market investors, CNBC reported.

Dialing up delivery

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Popular delivery platforms DoorDash and Uber Eats were two other notable new entrants this year. Their presences signals the recent surging growth in the delivery space. Consumer spending on online food-delivery services in the U.S. will total $71.8 billion in 2021, up from $61.5 billion in 2020 and $33.5 billion in 2019, according to analysis from Morgan Stanley.

“Delivery is certainly more relevant to people’s lives this year than ever before,” said Thomas Ranese, vice president of global marketing at Uber Technologies.

Cathartic comedy

“When we looked at the Super Bowl and were trying to understand what consumers are looking for, it was this moment of joy and release,” said Rachel Ferdinando, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Frito-Lay North America.

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Many brands played into that, tapping an all-star cast of comedians to bring laughter and levity to the masses. Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Amy Schumer and Tracey Morgan all graced the screens this year, offering audiences a moment of comic relief.

“We thought a lot about having a more sentimental message at the Super Bowl, pulling on heartstrings,” said Thomas Ranese, Uber’s global marketing vice president. “But we just thought that people really need to laugh and have a bit of humor and a reprieve from how serious this whole year has been.”

Uplifting outlook

Many brands struck a tone of hope and optimism, offering a momentary antidote after what was an oftentimes hopeless year.

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Toyota said it wanted to share an “uplifting message of hope and strength” with its ad “Upstream.” The spot, which tells the empowering story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, ends with the line, “we believe there is hope and strength in all of us.”

Chipotle’s first-ever Super Bowl ad shares its commitment to creating more sustainable food systems. It follows the aspirational thought process of a gen Zer asking “can a burrito change the world?,” closing with the message that “how we grow our food is how we grow our future.” Chipotle’s chief marketing officer Chris Brandt said that the brand “spent a lot of time on the tone of this spot to make it right—not so serious and depressing, but a bit of optimism.”

Michelob Ultra espoused a “glass half full” attitude. “What if we were wrong this whole time—wrong in thinking that joy happens only at the end, after the sacrifice, after the commitment?” The brand asked in its “Happy” spot, which encourages viewers to reframe their definition of happiness. “What if joy is the whole game, not just the end game? So, ask yourself: are you happy because you win? Or do you win because you’re happy?”

A message of unity

In recent years, political messaging has found its way into many of the more heavy-hitting spots. But this year, the ultimate message was one of unity.

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In Jeep’s “The Middle,” Bruce Springsteen encourages Americans to find some common ground. “It’s no secret: the middle has been a hard place to get to lately, between red and blue, between serving and citizen, between our freedom and our fear.” But he urges Americans to focus on freedom, not fear; freedom, he says, is “what connects us—and we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember, the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert, and we will cross this divide.”

And Anheuser-Busch, in what it calls its first “corporate spot,” focused on what brings people together. “When you say ‘let’s grab a beer,’ it’s never just about the beer,” the ad said. “It’s about saying that simple human truth: we need each other.”

The National Football League’s (NFL) “As One” was a tribute to NFL great—and namesake of the Super Bowl trophy—Vince Lombardi, featuring snippets of speeches he gave throughout his life. “We did not get here alone; we arrived as one. With courage. With stamina. With teamwork,” he proclaimed. “It’s not whether we get knocked down, but whether we get back up—as one.”

As Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said: “advertisers are reflecting our behaviors and the life we’re leading, but only in the most positive way.”

Main image courtesy of Toyota