On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe discuss why this year’s crop of booze ads during the Super Bowl were surprisingly lackluster, even with more drinks companies advertising than ever before. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s, New York City Headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, it’s kind of weird. It’s like old times all of a sudden.
Z: The Adam and Zach periods — we might call them the dark ages, probably, but they do occur from time to time on the “VinePair Podcast.”
A: I wonder how many of our listeners even remember it when it was just the two of us.
Z: Well, if you go back and look at our listenership numbers, there can’t be that many of them. Definitely not from the early days.
A: Everyone’s like, just these two losers, like what’s going on here? To let you know you’re going to be stuck with us for a little while. No news on Joanna yet, but she is officially out while we wait on, hopefully, something good to happen. We’ll let you all know when that happens.
Z: Yes, of course.
A: Yes, It’s just me and you, man. Are you still in Hawaii?
Z: Yes, I guess despite the intro, I am still in Hawaii. We are wrapping things up here today. It’s funny, we got, like, a little bit of everything on this trip. We got to go to a lūʻau, which got canceled because we got thunder and lightning in the middle of it, which was exciting, but not really what we were hoping for.
A: Yes, not what you’d hope for.
Z: My kālua pork got very soggy very quickly, and then we had an earthquake yesterday. It was fun. Not a big one, thankfully, but just a little shake right after the kids went to bed. My son was very sad that he missed it and saw some lava at the volcano where it was supposed to be. No real drama there — Kilauea just kind of always erupts very gently. Drank some Piña Coladas, went to the beach, got a sunburn and stuff.
Z: Yes, it’s been good. Hawaii is a great place. Also, definitely ready to head home. That’s a good place to be.
A: That’s where you always want to be. Did you have a chance to watch the Super Bowl?
Z: I watched a little bit of the Super Bowl, we were in transit. This is one of the things that happens sometimes when you travel, at least for me, which is even though kind of in some sense I’m aware that going to Hawaii, we’re an additional 2 hours behind Seattle, I didn’t really internalize that. The Super Bowl for me in Seattle is always like a middle-of-the-afternoon thing. It’s like, okay, the game comes on at like, 3:30 p.m., that’s just the deal. On Sunday, we’re transiting from where we’re staying on the east side of the island over to the west side of the island, the theoretically sunny side, where our lūʻau was not supposed to get canceled by thunder and lightning. Instead, we basically spent the first half of the football game driving across the island, which was, whatever, fine. I have a certain amount of interest in the game, but it wasn’t the end of the world to me. We got to the hotel and checked in and went down to the beach, and I was like, what is that noise in the back? I was like, yes, there’s a Super Bowl going on. OK, cool. While Saul and Lila and to some extent Caitlin played in the sand, I had half an eye on them and half an eye on the TV that was conveniently located right next to the beach. Watched the end of it. Exciting football game, always fun when they come down to the wire, even if maybe the absolute end was a little anticlimactic. I don’t think we’re here to recap the football game. Anyone who cares about what happened in the game probably wouldn’t turn to us for insight and also probably has long since digested every bit of content that they wanted to.
A: Though we are here to dissect a portion of the Super Bowl. We’ve been speaking for a very long time now about where engaged audiences still exist on a mass scale for exposing these audiences to alcohol brands, whether that be wine, beer, or spirits. For those of you who are our regular listeners, what we said is the best strategy now for getting your product into the hands of brand evangelists is through niche audiences. Whether they are audiences that are solely focused on drinks, like readers of VinePair, or audiences that are focused on more lifestyle products, whether they’re readers of fashion magazines, et cetera, high-end luxury consumers through the Robb Report. It seems like niches is the way to go. That mass really is not as successful in reaching people who become massively engaged as it used to be, right? We don’t really have that must-see TV Thursday night viewing anymore. We don’t have people waking up every morning and watching programs like the “Today” show and “Good Morning America.” All those audiences are starting to dwindle, but the one place where the audience still really exists is football. The Super Bowl is by far the most watched program in America every single year. There was a stat I read, that more people celebrate the Super Bowl than Thanksgiving in America, which is kind of amazing. There’s been a push recently to try to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday. Riding the subway on Monday morning, I can tell you there were many people who looked like they did not want to be going into work that morning, probably still a little intoxicated. It is a big drinking holiday. It’s for a lot of people now, the end of dry January. All of that culminates in this massive cultural moment where this year for the first time, lots of different brands partook in advertising during the big game. For the longest time, ABI has had a real monopoly over Super Bowl advertisements, and they relinquished that monopoly last year, agreed to let other people come in they didn’t want to pay, basically said they didn’t want to pay what it costs to full-out own all of the ads around the Super Bowl, and so they allowed brands like Remy Martin, Crown Royal, et cetera. They still were very well placed like Busch, Bud Light was there, but then Sam Adams was also around Heineken 0.0 to advertise. I think there were a lot of people that were very excited about this, that this meant that we were going to see more creativity than we’ve ever seen in these ads. Right. A lot of the traditional ads you’ve seen in the past, Zach, like for ABI are what you expect, right? There’s the Clydesdales for Budweiser, like the pulling-at-the-heartstring stuff with usually a lost dog that finds its way home. There’s always the Bud Light ad sign with their weird robots sometimes with some of their other mascots. This year was the first time other brands were already involved, so people were really excited. I have to say, the general consensus across the board when it comes from critics, advertising issue people, as well as our own staff at VinePair, was the majority of the ads were really underwhelming. It felt like there was a really big missed opportunity. Only one alcohol ad made it into the top 10 USA Today Ad Meter where they looked at credit scores’ engagement — only one and I think it made it in at 10. I feel like there was just this massive missed opportunity here where we’ve been talking for the last few weeks about all the things happening in alcohol, and these huge brands had an opportunity to reach these audiences and they just whiffed on it. There was like, they fumbled the ball, however you want to say. There wasn’t anything good. The one thing I want to talk about at the very top was, I was just pretty shocked there wasn’t a single wine ad. For as we’re talking about how the wine industry is in dire straits right now, the fact that there wasn’t a single wine ad was very surprising to me. This is the most engaged audience you’re going to find at a mass scale, and no one took that opportunity now. Obviously, Gallo is the official sponsor of the NFL, but as we saw from Remy Martin, clearly that doesn’t mean that you are not allowed to advertise if you’re not that sponsor. Remy Martin Cognac ran an ad, an ad I would say was fine, Serena Williams, but Diageo is the official sponsor of the NFL on the spirit side, and that didn’t stop Remy Martin. It could have been another wine company instead of Gallo, but I was really surprised at that. What was your overall take from reading all these recaps since the game?
Z: Yes, I think it’s interesting. I think to the point about the overall lack of, maybe lack of quality or just lack of a captivating ad, I think there’s two explanations. One is just the undeniable reality that we now live in a world where these ads themselves are like a subject of much conversation and discussion and all that before the Super Bowl ever airs. There’s all these — it’s a maddening state of affairs when you step back and think about it, but part of what made some of the earlier, whether they were alcohol ads in particular, or even just Super Bowl ads in general so impactful, was that they surprised people, they came out of nowhere. You knew that Budweiser was going to be advertising or Anheuser-Busch was going to be advertising, but you didn’t necessarily know whether it’s the Budweiser frogs or the Whassup or whatever, all those things they were not months of speculation about what the ad content was going to be because it was just a different time. Especially because so many of these ads as you were noting center around very, very famous people, which I actually think makes — one of my big takeaways is that putting a very, very well-known celebrity or celebrities in your ad is I think actually a really good way to ensure that your ad is not that memorable because we already know these people. If you think about most of the big breakout ads in Super Bowl history, they don’t feature incredibly famous people. They feature either “normal people” or animals, or they’re animated or some other way presented in an unusual format. The famous celebrity pitching a thing is just not going to get much penetration because we now live our lives so exposed to these celebrities all the time. They’re pitching us stuff through social media all the time in a lot of cases that, whether it’s Serena Williams or Dave Grohl or whomever, I just don’t think it has that much impact on people. They go like, “Oh, okay, there’s a person I recognize.” The Super Bowl is full of people they recognize. It’s not really that distinctive. I think the last takeaway I would say on the wine topic, it makes me wonder — we’ve obviously talked a lot about wine and one of the big through lines of our conversation lately is wine just doesn’t spend a lot of money on advertising. Maybe it’s as simple as saying none of these companies wanted to pony up what it takes to get into the Super Bowl because it’s obviously the most expensive ad real estate there is. On the flip side to that, I think there’s also perhaps still a misunderstanding of who your potential audience for the Super Bowl is. As you said, if it’s the biggest event in America, bigger than Thanksgiving, which obviously also doesn’t have the same kind of television spectacle attached to it. Yes, there’s the parade. Yes, there is football, but none of those draw anywhere near the eyeballs that the Super Bowl itself does. Of course, you know that if there’s going to be one event all year that people are generally not going to fast forward through commercials step away. A lot of people are there to watch the commercials. So much of your potential viewing audience aren’t people who drink wine. You get trapped in the weird football stereotypes for these events, which is always weird to me. Sure, yes, a core segment of the Super Bowl viewing audience are football fans, people who watch football regularly. The idea that you have to make your ad relevant to football or centered around football or appeal to what is viewed as a traditional football demographic, which itself is I think an outdated concept because football fans are not just middle-aged white men. They’re people of all ages, genders, races, et cetera. You should feel, I think, encouraged to advertise almost any product. I think you’re right. A wine ad might have really stood out in the field of a bunch of other ads, including a bunch of alcohol ads that are largely centered around beer and now a little bit spirits. I don’t know. I think underwhelmed is a good way to put it. I think it felt weirdly stagnant despite, as you said, this should have been the year where things felt loosened up a little bit because there was less of a monopoly on alcohol advertising than ever before.
A: I think your celebrity point is a really great one. I feel like the one thing that we spoke about a lot in the office was not only did the majority of the celebrity ads feel exactly what you’re saying, forced and clearly the fact that these people were just paid to be in the ad and you knew they really had no connection whatsoever to the liquid they were pushing. Also in one case, two different brands used the same celebrity. You have to think, man, did someone not talk to that person’s agent? In this case, we’re talking about Serena Williams, she was in a beer ad and a spirits ad. I get it, I guess it’s beer and spirits, but if you’re looking to stand out as you’re saying, you almost blend together even more because now you’re using the exact same spokesperson. I think it’s worth remembering that the reason this happens so much is because for a lot of these brands, this is the biggest budget they ever get to play with. Maybe they also get to sponsor Coachella or things like that where they get to work with some of these people, but this is the biggest budget and we’re all humans. It’s very fun to get to work with someone like Serena Williams. To be on set as the brand manager and interacting with Serena Williams is really f*cking cool. That’s why this happened so much, but it’s not the best idea all the time. I think you hit the nail on the head here in this situation. We are so used to being sold so many things by these brands that the connection to that celebrity and the brand doesn’t ever feel that authentic. Where it worked is where the celebrity obviously is very connected to the brand. When Aviation Gin, for example, used to run its online-only ads around the Super Bowl to get attention, obviously Ryan Reynolds makes sense. He’s a part owner in the brand, so everyone understood why he was speaking about it, and he was always doing it in a very funny way, talking about the low budgets, blah, blah, blah. People loved it. That’s why they remembered it. Using Dave Grohl doesn’t make as much sense. The one that I felt was one of the oddest ones across the board was the Heineken 0.0 with Ant-Man. I mean, first of all, it’s not even one of the most popular Marvel movies by far. Yes, Paul Rudd is a national treasure, but Ant-Man is not this massive, massive hit for Marvel. It’s very successful but it’s not one of the huge, huge ones that we always talked about. That was also for 0.0, which, okay, it’s nice that they decided to push that it’s actually a growing product for them but it just didn’t make a lot of sense. I would say that for me, the one that was the most interesting, in terms of creativity was the Sam Adams one where at least we were imagining what a lighter, nicer Boston would be like and acknowledging that Boston has this reputation for being really rough and gruff, and loud. Then they connected the fact that they reimagined the liquid of Sam Adams lager as this light, bright spin. Now, the argument the people in the office have made is why did they choose to use their marketing dollars for Sam Adams? Boston lager went like it’s not askew, that’s been growing when they should have probably used a different city to pimp Truly. At least it felt creative.
Z: Well, and I think as you said, that ad has a couple of minor celebrity cameos like Kevin Garnett in it, et cetera, but there’s just little bits in there. They’re not the centerpiece. The point of the commercial isn’t exactly like, “Look at this famous person we paid to be in this ad,” and it does feel obviously very connected to the product. You can’t get more connected to Sam Adams Boston lager than an ad about Boston but I do think that maybe it’s easier for Sam Adams in some way to take a little bit more of a risk in that direction. I think that to the point you were making about people liking to work with celebrities, or it being exciting, I also think it’s a matter of safety. No one is going to get fired for spending their ad budget on a celebrity. If you take your big Super Bowl buy budget, and you spend most of that money, not just on the advertising spot, but the money you’ve been given to produce it, and you get a very famous person to be in it, you do a pretty straightforward thing, putting them there next to your product, your ad agency gets hired again. You don’t get let go because you blew whatever, $15 million on some concept ad that everyone pans the next day. I think that as the stakes have gotten higher, as not only the cost of the ads has gotten higher, but frankly, the amount of attention paid to them, not just by a couple of media outlets, but now it’s on social media the instant after the ad airs. There are people talking about it. You have to catch people right away, you have to get that buzz. I think it just creates a lot of, “Why take risks no one is incentivized to do except for the people who want to cut against the grain?” I think there always will be some of that, and whether that happens, as you were discussing with Aviation around, but not directly connected to the Super Bowl, or whether it’s, instead, a couple of ads during the Super Bowl that do feel a little bit more like they’re taking a chance. I just think the size of the audience, the cost of everything involved incentivizes a certain amount of risk-averse behavior. Which is unfortunate, because, in the end, it makes the commercials, which I think at one point was genuinely a moment for ad agencies to take chances and to put interesting, creative things on the air, has now turned into, frankly, a pretty boring part of what used to be exciting. People used to say, “Oh, the commercials are better than the game.” I think the Super Bowls themselves have gotten more competitive as of late, which is cool. The game itself has gotten, I think, more enjoyable to watch but also I think the ads have kind of lost that luster because they’ve become more homogenized, or at least just safer in all ways.
A: Yes. I think you’re totally right. Well, let us know what you thought about the Super Bowl and the commercials. Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let us know if you watched, what commercial you liked the best, which one you liked the least, and if you were as surprised as we were to not see a wine commercial and if it felt like yet another missed opportunity here. Hopefully, wine gets its act together, and we will chat with everyone on Monday. It’s just going to be me and you again, Zach.
Z: Sounds great.
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