NEW YORK (AP) -- Forget slapstick and sex in Super Bowl ads: This year, serious was the name of the game. Nationwide ran an ad on preventable childhood death. Carnival struck a somber note with a voiceover by John F. Kennedy speaking lyrically about the sea. And a public service announcement by coalition No More depicted a chilling 911 call from a battered woman to demonstrate the terror of domestic abuse.
Other advertisers had positive, albeit equally serious themes: McDonald's said it would let some customers pay with acts of kindness, Coca-Cola showed online negativity and bullying turning positive and Procter & Gamble's ad for its Always feminine products brand tried to redefine what it means to do things like a girl.
"It's a shame there aren't any commercials for antidepressants because these commercials make me want some," said Jon Early, who was watching the game in New York with friends. "Football is supposed to be an escape."
The serious tone is an effort to win over Americans who have a lower tolerance for crass ads with an overuse of sexually explicit themes and sophomoric humor. They also have short attention spans these days, thanks to bite-sized communication of social media.
The serious spots were a continuation of a trend that started last year when advertisers shied away from the tactics that had been commonplace during Super Bowl. The difference this year is that many of the serious ads had an overarching "message" to live better, think better and be better.
With 30-second ads costing $4.5 million for the chance to market their brand to 110-plus million Americans, advertisers were trying to make their mark by marketing socially-conscious messages. In the process, they hoped to boost the image of their brands.
"The Super Bowl reflects what's happening in the country," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "Maybe in the country today we're a little more reflective and a little more pensive."
A Microsoft ad with a voiceover by rapper Common told the story of Braylon O'Neill, a boy who was born missing the tibia and fibula bones in both of his legs so he had to learn to live with prosthetic legs developed by Microsoft.
The ad struck some similar notes with Toyota's Camry ad, which featured Paralympian Amy Purdy, who also has prosthetic legs snowboarding and dancing set to a speech by Muhammad Ali that ends "I'll show you how great I am."
Some serious ads bordered on sober. Nissan returned to the Super Bowl after 18 years with an ad featuring the story line of an up-and-coming race driver and his wife struggling to balance work and raising their son. In a jarring detail that many on social media pointed out, the ad was set to "Cats in the Cradle" by Harry Chapin, who was killed in a car crash.
And a Nationwide ad showed a boy riding a school bus and lamenting he'll never learn to fly, or travel the world with my best friend, or even grow up, because he died in an accident. The ad was aimed at stopping preventable childhood accidents, but Charles Taylor, marketing professor at the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania, said the ad received the most negative response from his ad viewing panel.
"It's just playing with fire focusing on an adolescents' death in the context of the Super Bowl," he said.
POSITIVE BUT SERIOUS
Other advertisers tried to implore people to do positive things.
In apparent commentary on how heavily food companies market to Americans, Weight Watchers' Super Bowl debut ad showed pizza, doughnuts in large portions with an ominous voiceover saying "You gotta eat, right?" A tagline said Weight Watcher can help members take control.
But it didn't resonate with all viewers, many of whom were at Super Bowl parties eating snacks. "Some people are saying it made them want to eat more than anything," said Villanova's Taylor.
Meanwhile, fast food chain McDonald's announced it will let random customers pay for their food with acts of goodwill, such as calling their moms and telling them they love them as part of a Valentine's Day promotion that will start Monday.
HUMOR IN BETWEEN
Not all ads were serious, though.
Nationwide's other ad showed "Mindy Project" star Mindy Kaling walking around New York believing she is invisible and doing scandalous acts, including sitting naked in Central Park and going through a car wash. Then she tries to kiss Matt Damon but he can see her. The idea is Nationwide doesn't treat customers like they're invisible.
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher, a psychotherapist watching the game in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said the ad appealed to her. "It sucked you in as a plot and then ruined it for her," she said.
Another ad scored early. Chevrolet's spot before kickoff appeared to be a live game feed that turned into static and a blank screen, shocking some viewers. Chevrolet used the trick to show that its Colorado truck has 4G LTE Wi Fi, allowing for live game streaming in the truck.
"That one got all of our attention," said Kirin Jessel, who watched the game with co-workers in Oakland, Calif. "We were thinking `Oh my God, what's happening."'
BUDWEISER: PUPPY LOVE ... AGAIN
Budweiser's "Lost Puppy" ad was a winner before it even aired during the Super Bowl. The ad, which shows a puppy running away to find his Clydesdale buddies, already had 18 million views on YouTube ahead of the game. It's a tried-and-true formula. Last year, Budweiser broke records with its Super Bowl spot, "Puppy Love," which was a Top 10 branded content video and Top 10 video overall on YouTube. Some fun facts about this year's spot:
--Eight puppies are featured in the ad, all of which were just a few months old at the time of filming
--Seven Budweiser Clydesdales underwent training for three months to fine-tune their skills for the ad.
--The song in the spot, "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" is performed by Sleeping At Last.
Dodge celebrated its 100-year anniversary by sharing words of wisdom from people who are around the same age. Among the tidbits:
--"There are miracles all around you."
--"Keep your eyes open, and sometimes your mouth shut."
--"Never, ever forget where you came from."
SNICKERS: MARCIA, MARCIA, MARCIA!
Snickers scores some laughs early in the first quarter with an ad recreating a famous Brady Bunch scene. Actor Danny Trejo plays an agitated Marcia Brady with a broken nose, continuing the Snickers advertising theme that people aren't themselves when they're hungry. The kicker comes when the camera cuts to Steve Buscemi as he stands on the Brady's familiar staircase, reciting middle sister Jan's line of exasperation: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"
"This isn't about you Jan," says Florence Henderson, the actress who played Carole Brady. This prompts Buscemi to run away, exasperated, while shouting: "It never is!"
BMW i3: TIME TRAVEL WITH BMW
Somehow, TV journalists Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel seem to know what "twerk" means. The former "Today" show hosts poked fun at themselves in an ad for BMW's new all-electric car. The ad features a clip from 1994 when Couric and Gumbel express puzzlement over the concept of the Internet and the "at" symbol in email addresses.
Fast-forward to present day, and they're expressing similar confusion about BMW's i3 car. Toward the end of the commercial, Gumbel asks Couric if she can twerk. "Maybe," Couric says.
For those who aren't familiar with the term, Urban Dictionary defines it as "the rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal."
KIA: JAMES BOND DRIVING A KIA?
In Kia's ad, Pierce Brosnan is pitched a movie role where he doesn't get to play the typical action adventure hero. Instead of dodging snipers and missile launchers, the role has him driving up a snowy mountain at 30 mile-per-hour for a romantic getaway.
TOYOTA: TOYOTA'S KICKOFF
Toyota kicked off the ad games with a spot for featuring Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy snowboarding and dancing, set to a speech by Muhammad Ali that ends with: "I'll show you how great I am."
It's the first of two ads for Toyota's Camry.
(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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