Super Bowl ads go from heavy to happy

A Mountain Dew commercial in Super Bowl 50 features a “puppymonkeybaby.”
A Mountain Dew commercial in Super Bowl 50 features a “puppymonkeybaby.” The Associated Press

Millions of Americans who tuned in for the glitz and grandeur of last year’s Super Bowl ads were instead force-fed a sad smorgasbord: abused wives and lost dogs, cyberbullying and overeating, even an insurance commercial where a dead boy dreamed of all the things he’d never do.

But this year, advertisers at America’s most-watched sporting event are swapping out the pall for what made the spectacle so popular in the first place: cute puppies in costumes, zany sight gags and a parade of celebrities designed not to remind viewers of the world’s problems, but to distract from them, with fireworks.

If Super Bowl ads mirror what corporate America thinks the country wants to see right now, one thing is clear: We could all use a laugh. Or, at the very least, a break from a dispiriting news cycle and doom-and-gloom political season that has filled commercials with foreign terrorists and domestic dread.

So on Sunday, viewers returning to the TV gridiron after last year’s “Somber Bowl” will likely find a newly shiny, happy and ceaselessly upbeat advertising universe in which the only political party is the Bud Light Party and everyone makes it out of the ad alive.

“People don’t really care about all these weighty issues when … they’re sitting around, drinking a brew and eating chips,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, a longtime ad executive and chief of Manhattan ad agency NSG/SWAT. “They want to be entertained. They love seeing the Super Bowl iconic ad work, the Clydesdales, the celebrities. They love sex. They love a good joke. Mostly, they just want to have some fun.”

The feel-good renaissance of the Super Bowl ad, executives say, was a conscious creative decision, designed to win back viewers fatigued by despair and eager to laugh (and buy) again.

Laughing it up at America’s biggest campfire doesn’t come cheap: The average cost to air a 30-second Super Bowl ad has doubled since 2008 to about $5 million. But companies who land a gag during the Sunday matchup of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos are guaranteed a viewership that most companies can only dream of. Last year’s game drew an average of 114 million viewers, the biggest audience in TV history.

No apes have hit the road in any of the corporate campaigns revealed in the days before kickoff, but virtually all of the ads released so far have been bubbly, agreeable and trouble-free.

Dachshunds in hot dog costumes run majestically across a prairie for Heinz condiments. Dan Marino and Alec Baldwin plan a raucous party with help from the Amazon Echo. Axe, a men’s grooming brand, swaps out its typical call to machismo for an ode to self-esteem, asking, “Who needs a six-pack when you got the nose?”

Even the calls to serious topics are fringed with humor. A Budweiser anti-drunk-driving ad stars Helen Mirren, a self-labeled “notoriously frank and uncensored British lady,” slinging insults at any tipsy viewer who would dare pick up the keys. So far, the lone reference to politics has involved comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen, yanking on Spanx to represent what their campaign pins call the Bud Light Party.